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6 Good Reasons to Use a Trade Mark Professional

A question often raised by brand owners is why use a trade mark professional to file an application for registration when you can do it yourself? But like trimming your fringe with the nail scissors, just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

At first glance, filing a trade mark seems a relatively simple exercise and one where the Office is at pains to make it easy. However, the wisdom of using a trade mark professional is often not realised until there is a dispute and your register rights are not quite what you need.

When making the decision whether to file your own trade mark application directly at the Office, there are multiple factors to consider.

  1. Trade marks are a business asset and should be created with care and knowledge of underlying laws.
  2. Knowledge of laws involves not just having a passing familiarity with the technical workings of the Trade Marks Act, but also knowing and understanding how the Act works in fine detail. Knowledge of law includes being up-to-date with trends in examination and case law. This mix of subjective and objective knowledge necessarily takes focused reading, working experience and time to develop.
  3. Pre-application searching is best done by a trade mark professional to gauge the risk of trade mark infringement, and the risk of breach of common law rights created by unregistered trade marks in use. The Intellectual Property Office pre-application search function does not include an assessment of unregistered trade marks in use. The Office search may also not account for misspellings or phonetic equivalents. All these rights can seriously affect your freedom to use and protect your trade marks and must be considered at the outset.
  4. A well-filed trade mark will meet the benchmark of current laws and will also accommodate any new business requirements proposed for the future.
  5. A well-filed trade mark gives a business the room to grow under the trade mark with broadest protection while not leaving the trade mark registration vulnerable to removal for being excessively broad.
  6. Filing through a trade mark professional means register rights and renewal dates should be noted on its records. You do not have to bear the risk of forgetting to renew, or being sucked in by one of the many spam renewal agents who charge extortionate fees.

It’s Not Too Late!

Trade mark applications can be filed at any time during the branding process.

If you have doubts that your current registered trade mark is what you need, or want to review your strategy for protection of trade marks, talk to us today.

Fee Changes for NZ Patents and Trade Marks

IPONZ has announced new official fees for patents and trade marks in New Zealand. These will come into force on 13 February 2020.

Trade Marks

For trade marks, many fees are dropping.

The Good News

The fee reduction encourages applicants to use the IPONZ preliminary search and advice option and pre-approved specifications for goods and services.

This encourages small businesses to develop registrable trade marks in conjunction with IPONZ guidance, and there should be fewer applications on the register which are flawed at filing and have little prospect of success. The reduction in IPONZ’s workloads should in turn speed examination, meaning more registrations issue without objections.

The Not so Good News

There is a potential down-side to embracing these services.

IPONZ’s preliminary search and advice is not a comprehensive search. It does not guarantee that an approved application will not conflict with third party rights.

IPONZ does not consider rights in trade marks outside their limited search or any unregistered trade mark common law rights. This may give small businesses a false sense of security that trade marks are free to use without proper considering all potential risk areas.

The pre-approved list may also not provide protection necessary for a strong trade mark right or may result in applicants simply selecting all goods in a class without tailoring an application to fit their business plans.

The Potentially Bad News

We anticipate that the relatively cheap application process will result in an influx of applications that overclaim the area of interest or are simply speculative filings. Applicants will lodge to reserve a position on the register with no true interest in use.

Trade mark registers internationally are already seeing a dramatic increase in applications from fast-growing economies like China, and this is likely to increase even further when filing is cheap and easily done.

As the register becomes cluttered, trade mark owners will have to negotiate a larger number of trade marks when developing new brands. This can mean an increase in branding costs as oppositions, non-use and invalidity actions may be needed to clear the register of trade marks that aren’t used or that are filed without proper consideration of common law rights and existing reputations.

Overseas brand owners should also be wary of an influx of opportunistic applications endeavouring to trade off overseas reputation and take advantage of a cheap and easy filing process.

What Should You Do Now?

Filing now may save you costs in the long run.

For overseas companies, assess if New Zealand is a potential future market. Are you in Australia already and thinking about neighbouring markets?

If you are expanding or re-branding your business, think about whether you should file for your new trade mark now while others hold off waiting for cheap fees to come into effect. You may well avoid increased risk of citations by getting in early.

As always, the first step in deciding what do to is taking advice from the right person. Talk to our trade marks team today.

Patents

For patents, many fees are increasing.

2013 Act cases

Any application filed after 13 September 2014 is made under the 2013 Act. Almost all pending applications are 2013 Act cases.

For 2013 Act cases, there are two key changes.

The request for examination fee increases from $500 to $750. To avoid this increase, applicants should request examination before 13 February 2020.

IPONZ is also introducing an excess claims fee. This applies to each 5th claim from claim 30 onwards. It is due after acceptance, but is calculated based on the maximum number of claims at any point between requesting examination and acceptance. The excess claim fee can be avoided by having 29 or fewer claims during examination. Since other countries already charge excess claim fees (notably Australia and the United States), most applicants shouldn’t have too much difficulty avoiding this fee.

1953 Act cases

Divisionals of applications filed before 13 September 2014 are made under the 1953 Act.

The key change for 1953 Act cases is the doubling the filing fee to $500. IPONZ hopes this will dissuade further divisional from being filed.

Patent renewals

Patent renewal fees are increasing hugely. All the fees are at least doubled, and the 15th to 19th year fee is almost tripling to $1000 per year.

Unfortunately, there is no way to avoid this increase: renewal fees cannot be paid more than six months in advance.

The Effect

On their face, these fee changes do not seem good for New Zealand businesses. Who wants to pay more?

But, there may be a silver lining to this. Foreign competitors may avoid filing in New Zealand or may allow their patents to lapse earlier to avoid the increased costs. This is particularly likely with foreign entities who apply for patents in New Zealand purely to disrupt New Zealand-based competitors.

The fee changes could therefore actually benefit businesses in New Zealand in the long run.

What Should You Do Now?

Requesting examination now will help to minimise costs.

But the decision on when to request examination goes beyond simply saving a few dollars now. Talk to our patents team to decide how to best manage your patent portfolio.

Trade Marks Over the Breakfast Bowl

A recent application by Kellogg Company (“Kellogg”) to register its NUTRIGRAIN BOLT shape for cereal in New Zealand has been successfully opposed by Société des Produits Nestlé S.A. (“Nestle”) (“the Kellogg case”)1.

The Assistant Commissioner held that the evidence did not demonstrate on the balance of probabilities that this shape operated as a distinctive badge of origin for Kellogg.

Shape trade marks are one of a group of branding elements often referred to as “non-traditional trade marks”. This group also includes colours, smells and sounds. Nestle’s successful opposition and the comments made by the Assistant Commissioner in this decision highlight some of the difficulties faced when attempting to register shape trade marks.

What is Needed for a Shape to be Deemed Registrable as a Trade Mark?

The rule of thumb for all trade marks, including shapes, is that the trade mark must be capable of acting as a badge of origin for goods or services.

This means in practice that shape on its own must be sufficiently distinctive that consumers would connect the product to its source.

Registrability standards change overtime, however under current criteria a high level of recognition from consumers and independent traders can be required to support registration of a shape as a trade mark.

Some Shapes can be Quite Easy

Some product shapes can easily be seen to operate as trade marks. For example, specially shaped bottles and containers can be recognised as coming from certain suppliers long after all other identifying labels are removed.

As confirmed in the Kellogg case:2

While it is not necessary for the mark to be unusual or extraordinary, the more unusual the connotation or juxtaposition that the mark has in relation to the goods in question, the more likely it is that the mark has inherent distinctiveness.

But Functional Shapes and Common Shapes are Usually Hard

If a shape performs a function, for example coffee capsules that are designed to work with a particular coffee machine, then the applicant must be able to show that the same function can be performed by other shapes. The more common a shape is, the harder it will be to show that the shape connects to one trader to the exclusion of all others.

Similarly, if the Examiner can find that other traders are using the same or similar shape for goods or services, then immediately doubt is raised that this element can operate as a trade mark for a single trader.

The Assistant Commissioner in the Kellogg case confirms:3

the simple shape of the opposed mark, coupled with evidence of some actual use of a very similar shape by other traders, points towards other traders being likely to want to use a similar shape to the opposed mark for their own breakfast cereals.

Showing the Shape Operates as a Trade Mark can be Hard

The evidence necessary to secure acceptance must show that the shape operates to identify the trader. This identification must then relate to the goods covered by the application.

Bottles or other shaped packaging are usually easily able to have that connection because the consumer experiences the shape as part of the purchasing decision. But is much trickier to make this connection where product reaches the market in a cardboard box which also shows other brand elements like logos:

Following a wealth of precedent, the Assistant Commissioner in the Kellogg confirmed that it must be clear the shape alone acts as a badge of origin: “[the] manner in which the goods are presented for sale is relevant when assessing whether the shape mark is likely to be perceived as a badge of origin”4. The Assistant Commissioner acknowledges “[it] can be more challenging to establish that the public perceives a shape as a badge of origin when use of that shape has been accompanied by another distinctive and well-recognised mark”5.

Advertising which emphasises the shape can be vital, but evidence that shows the shape alongside other distinctive trade marks may not be enough to support registration.

But With The Right Evidence You Could Do It

J H Whittaker & Sons Limited successfully defended its accepted application to register the SANTE bar shape from attack by Empire Confectionery Limited (“the Whittaker case”)6.

The shape is undeniably simple, yet the Assistant Commissioner found it operated as a trade mark.

Some of the key points resulting in success in the Whittaker case were the evidence of exclusive use from the 1950s, factual evidence to show the shape was developed specially for Whittaker’s, and heightened recognition of the shape by consumers because of packaging which hugs the bar allowing the shape to operate as an immediate badge of origin.

Whittaker was able to point to its long use and established reputation to successfully argue that no other traders would have good reason to use the same or similar shape without necessarily taking advantage of Whittaker’s reputation.

Ultimately, evidence of market share and long-standing use overwhelmed any inherent lack of distinctiveness because of the simplicity of the shape.

What Should I do about my Shape Trade Marks?

If you are developing a specially shaped product that is not yet in the market place, think about design registration as an alternative to trade mark protection. Design registration will cover your shape for up to 15 years.

For other shapes which are already in use, we recommend a review of ways these shapes operate to distinguish your goods and services.

Some elements may be registrable as trade marks now. For others, a careful marketing strategy could set you up to support an application for registration of your shapes as trade marks and provide you with valuable exclusive rights to those shapes for your goods and/or services.

Careful review with an IP professional is the first step towards protecting valuable shapes for your goods. Talk to us today to see how we can help.


1 Kellogg Company v Société des Produits Nestlé S.A. [2019] NZIPOTM 17.

2 Ibid at p 24.

3 Ibid at p 29.

4 Ibid at p 35.

5 Ibid at p 36.

6 J H Whittaker & Sons Limited v Empire Confectionery Limited [2015] NZIPOTM 4.

Declaration of Use for Trade Marks — Why and Why Not?

In an increasing number of countries, a declaration of use must be filed either before a trade mark is registered or at renewal. However, declarations of use are not a requirement under New Zealand trade mark law. This raises the question – is implementing a declaration of use requirement the right way to go?

The Current Situation in New Zealand

Under New Zealand law, an application for a trade mark is filed based on current, or intended, use of a trade mark. The action of filing a trade mark is considered enough to support a claim to use or an intention to use. No extra declaration or evidence to show use is required, so registrations can be obtained for broad goods and services. In addition, at renewal, a trade mark can be secured for a further 10-year term on payment of a fee without any requirement to show use on all the goods and services covered.

For this reason, unless a third party seeks to revoke a registration for non-use, trade mark registrations can exist for years without the trade mark ever being used.

The Effect of a Declaration of Use Overseas

Countries requiring a declaration of use during the application phase also necessarily require that an application is limited to the goods and services where use can be demonstrated before registration. Owners who file for wider goods or services must limit the application to area of use to secure final registration, or otherwise risk losing the entire register right under attack on the ground the claimed use was fraudulent.

Declarations of use before or at renewal also provide the trade mark owner an opportunity to review the register right and keep it relevant to current use. In this way the register is “cleaned” of trade marks no longer used on the goods/services covered by the registration without requiring third-party intervention.

In Favour of a Declaration of Use Requirement

With the increasing ease of the trade mark application process, comes the increase in risk of speculative trade mark applications.

Reduces Burden on Businesses: If legislation does not require proof of use before applications mature to registration, or at renewal, then the burden necessarily falls on businesses to “clean” the register of potentially spurious trade marks that bar their own trade mark applications.

Businesses must then factor into branding strategy the cost and delay of oppositions, invalidity actions and non-use actions, increasing cost and complexity.

Encourages Careful Branding: The additional requirement of a declaration of use before registration would encourage traders to consider the application more than a “tick-box” matter. Having an extra hurdle between application and registration should discourage speculative registrations and encourage considered decisions around branding.

Increased Weight in Enforcement: A registration secured after filing a use declaration, or a renewal supported by a use declaration, will provide at least initial demonstrable use. The underlying registration can then be assumed to be valid at the time of the declaration and this would add weight to the impact of a registration in an infringement action.

Ongoing Audit: On-going renewal declarations would also incentivise traders to keep their trade marks in use matching the trade marks on the register, and vice versa.

Against a Use Declaration Requirement

A system requiring declarations of use may stifle brand expansion given the economies of re-filing for each new iteration of a brand.

Continual Need for Registration Review: Filing for limited goods may also result in unworkably narrow register rights that do not allow for reasonable expansion of products or services offered over the lifetime of a business. Each new use could require a new trade mark application, meaning traders must bear in mind future expenditure in keeping the register up to date.

Risk that Register Rights are Sacrificed: The cost of needing to continually update trade mark registrations may mean registration of trade marks is not pursued as an avoidable expense. This could be to the detriment of the business’s ability to protect its interests in the future.

Encourages Complicated Fair Trading Litigation: If a registration for broader goods/services than those in use at the time of filing is not allowed, business owners may also be forced to adopt a litigious position through fair trading legislation or other commercial avenues because the deterrent value of a narrow registration is also less.

Excessive Legislative Hurdle: Current legislation already provides means through opposition, invalidity action and revocation for non-use where third parties can keep the register clear of trade marks unsupported by use or a genuine intention. Adding an extra legislative requirement during the application/renewal stage may be an excessive hurdle for genuine businesses.

Burden of Action Sits with Trade: Where there is no requirement under legislation to file additional documents, the costs of keepings the register clean sits with businesses who will benefit from the outcome. Public costs (through portioning of taxes) will not need to accommodate extra administrative steps at the Government level to ensure compliance with law.

Our View

While there is a risk of a cluttered register where proof of use before registration is not required, a registration limited by actual use is arguably too inhibitive.

A registration that covers an area of bona fide intended use broader than the current use provides trade mark owners with the margins of exclusivity necessary to develop a business over time. Overly restricted trade mark registrations run the risk increasing compliance cost in securing registered trade mark protection. Faced with increased cost at early stages, businesses may well decide to forego registered trade marks, leaving themselves open to uncertainty and potential cost in the future by relying on common law rights.

A good compromise may be to require a use declaration at renewal. This will allow for normal business growth and will prevent un-used trade marks remaining on the Register where the owner has no use to justify the monopoly granted by a registration.

Recommendations

The best way to ensure a wide sphere of rights is to identify a trade mark which is wholly distinctive for goods/services to be covered.

A distinctive trade mark is not only easier to register, but it is also typically easier to enforce under the Trade Marks Act and under common law rights.

Having identified a strong brand, owners should recognise that there is an art in crafting a description for trade mark applications which reflects intended use and is broad enough to provide a good sphere of rights. A well-filed trade mark will meet the bench-mark of current laws and will also be able to translate to accommodate any new requirements in the future, such as use declarations.

Your IP professional is the best person to assist you – talk to us today for assistance.

Trade Mark Renewal Reminders — Should You Act?

Trade mark owners are receiving an increasing number of offers from agents to renew registered intellectual property for New Zealand and overseas. While some of these agents look like they are offering a good deal, it is important to check that you will be getting the service you need.

Some claim: Renewal is due in the next couple of months and if you don’t instruct now you will lose your register rights.
The truth: Often the date noted is more than 12 months before renewal is due. You have plenty of time to instruct.

Some claim: They can renew for much less cost than our services.
The truth: The initial fee may be less, but having agreed to the service, the agent may issue several invoices to finalise renewal in addition to the first estimate. The overall cost is then much higher.

Some claim: The renewal will be processed once they receive your money.
The truth: The money disappears, and the renewal is never processed.

What to do: Don’t instruct without checking first!

If you filed through an attorney firm, your IP provider should have register rights and renewal dates noted on its records. If you receive a reminder and it is not from your provider, we recommend you make contact so that details can be checked, and a trusted agent can confirm what action you should take (if any).

What should you do if your trade mark is used on the internet?

As commerce moves away from traditional physical stores and onto the internet, it becomes increasingly difficult to know when the actions of another trader on the world wide web are an actionable breach of your trade mark rights.

While the factors involved in this assessment are best worked through with the guidance of an IP professional, we note below some of the key points to consider:

How do I know if the use infringes my trade mark registration?

You need to think about what is actually covered by the trade mark registration:

  • Is the trade mark the same?
  • Are the goods and services the same?
  • Are there obvious sales in the country in which the trade mark is registered?

In some cases, it is quite clear that the trade mark is in use in a way which directly conflicts with your registered trade mark rights and this will probably be your main avenue for attack.

But what if the use does not look like it falls within the registration coverage?

Fear not, just because the case for trade mark infringement may not be strong does not mean you do not have any grounds for redress.

You may still be able to establish a case under fair trading legislation and/or for the tort of passing off.

What do I need for fair trading breaches and/or passing off?

The rule of thumb for a fair trading breach or passing off is that you have a reputation in a brand which is being adversely and unfairly affected by the activity of another trader. The use must be in the course of commerce.

What about if I have rights in New Zealand, but the company using my brand is based somewhere else?

It is important to look closely at the use and identify each country where you could say the brand is being used to see if you can choose a country where you have best rights.

If a website offers the option to purchase products you should look at the country where the product is packaged and offered for sale. You should also think about whether product can be shipped to New Zealand direct from the seller. Drilling down into the supply chain may help you choose the best jurisdiction in which to take action.

The Private International Law (Choice of Law in Tort) Act 2017 summarises many years of case law on the topic of choosing a jurisdiction for tortious action and confirms that the general rule is that the country in which the tort is committed is the country whose laws will apply.

For the purposes of passing off, if part of the act is in one country (for example, order received and shipping) and the rest of the act is in another country (goods delivered and released to market) the tort can be pursued in the country in which “the most significant element … of those events occurred”.

This Act confirms you no longer need to be eligible to have an action in both countries involved in order to pursue your rights in one country.

Do I have to send a formal letter?

Laws are constantly being developed to place obligations on internet-based sales platforms to ensure the rights of trade mark owners are recognised and respected.

In many cases international sites such as Ebay, YouTube and Alibaba have IP protection clauses which help trade mark owners control potentially infringing use by dealing directly with them.

In less straightforward cases, it is likely formal cease and desist correspondence will be necessary.

In all cases, your best first step is to review your options with your legal advisor as early as possible.

UKIPO Update on Brexit

As the Brexit date approaches, recent reports indicate that the UK Government will offer automatic and free conversion of EU registered trade marks into UK registered trade marks.

But how accurate is this?

White Paper on Future Relationship issued by UK and EU 12 July 2018

The UK Government continues to negotiate with the EU as the Brexit date approaches and confirms a desire to minimise disruption to businesses.

This does not go so far as to confirm free and automatic conversion of trade marks.

The White Paper rather proposes that the UK should continue to have an active relationship with the EU to support EU and UK rights holders. It still remains to be seen which option will be followed.

What Should You Do Now – August 2018?

We caution against relying on conversion of rights by the UK Government. In order to put your business in the best position, we recommend following the same steps noted in our previous article:

  • Identify your true market and make sure your protection covers that market.
  • Keep your UK and EU trade marks in force. If you have a trade mark registration which is due for renewal, and the registration reflects what you are using, then we recommend you renew your registration and do not allow it to lapse.
  • Update any out of date Register rights. This could mean new UK or EU applications, either national filings or under an application under the Madrid Protocol system.
  • And finally, do not forget about third party agreements – review what you have and update what you need to update now!

And throughout all these steps, remember that we are here to help!