Thursday 10 January 2013

Another round concerning revocation of trademarks on grounds of non-use: the CJEU's judgment of 19 December 2012 in the Leno Case

The use requirement for Community trademarks and the territorial scope of that requirement remain controversial issues. A recent judgment by the CJEU has formalized matters somewhat in ruling that "borders of the Member States should be disregarded" when assessing genuine use of a Community trademark in the Community in matters bearing on revocation. Even so, this seemingly unambiguous finding fails to dispel all the question marks.

The case has again raised the long-standing issue of whether use of a trademark in a single Member State (in this case, The Netherlands) suffices to fulfil the requirement for "genuine use in the Community". The reference for a preliminary ruling was made in opposition proceedings at the Benelux national office requiring the opposing party to submit proof of use, but the doctrine set forth in the judgment is deemed extensible to applications for revocation of rights entered at the OHIM or counterclaims for revocation entered in infringement proceedings citing Community trademarks.

The Court has explicitly rejected both the OHIM Guidelines and a Joint Statement deeming use in one country to constitute genuine use in the Community, on grounds that they were not binding legal acts. Yet, at the same time, it has not completely ruled out that interpretation. The Court acknowledges that since a Community trademark enjoys more extensive territorial protection, it should be used "in a larger area than the territory of a single Member State", only to go on to say, right afterwards, that it cannot be ruled out that, in certain circumstances, the market for the goods or services for which a Community trademark has been registered "is in fact restricted to the territory of a single Member State". 

In the end the Court opted not to lay down a de minimis rule, admitting that it is impossible to determine a priori, and in the abstract, what territorial scope should be chosen and that it is up to the national courts to determine the genuine nature of use based on all the facts and circumstances in each individual case. The Court held that demonstrating whether "the commercial exploitation of the mark serves to create or maintain market shares for the goods or services for which it was registered" entails assessing the characteristics of the market concerned, the nature of the goods or services protected by the trademark, the territorial extent and scale of use, and the frequency and regularity of use. 

Now is thus a good opportunity to reflect on the consequences of the judgment and to review strategies with a view to the always difficult matter of choosing between national and Community trademarks, not only as grounds for opposition but also for portfolio maintenance.

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