Famous mark Protection under Trademark Law

Japan is a rigid “first-to-file” jurisdiction, meaning that it is necessary to register a trademark in order to obtain proprietary rights over it in principle. Prior use of the trademark is insufficient to be protected under the Trademark Law. The only meaningful exception to this rule is the treatment of so-called famous trademarks even if they have not been filed yet. But it should note owners of famous trademarks can’t file an infringement lawsuit based on the trademark right without registration in Japan. The Trademark Law provides special provisions to protect the famous trademarks. However, the statute never refers to the “famous” mark. It only refers to “recognized” marks, “widely recognized” marks, and “highly recognized” marks.

Relative grounds for refusal, opposition, invalidation

Like other jurisdictions, the Japan Trademark Law prohibits registration of junior marks which are the same as or similar to senior marks that are effectively registered in Japan under Article 4(1)(xi). In order to provide broader protection of famous trademarks, the Law stipulates extra grounds for refusal, opposition, and invalidation on Article 4(1)(x), (xv), (xix).

Article 4(1)(x)

Trademarks that are the same as or similar to trademarks that are widely recognized by consumers as marks indicating the goods or services of another and are used on the same goods or services or similar to those of the other party may not be registered.

Article 4(1)(xv)

Trademarks that are likely to cause confusion in connection with the goods or services related to another’s business may not be registered.

Article 4(1)(xix)

Trademarks which are the same as or similar to trademarks that are widely recognized among consumers either in Japan or in foreign countries as identifying the goods or services related to another’s business and are used for illicit purposes such as trading off the goodwill of another or causing damage to another may not be registered.

These articles spotlight that the Japan Trademark Law considers (1) “similarity” as a most critical issue to determine the scope of protection to famous trademark and (2) “likelihood of confusion” as other legal concepts different from “similarity”.

Defensive mark

A famous trademark may be registered as a defensive mark to cover other identified goods or services than those listed in the original registration under Article 64. These additional goods or services need to be dissimilar to the original goods or services and the registrant needs to prove (1) that the mark is “widely recognized by consumers” and (2) that confusion is likely if the mark is used on these additional goods or services by a third party.

Noteworthy is that defensive mark registration would not be vulnerable to non-use cancellation. Besides, the registrant is entitled to take action against a third party for trademark infringement even if the mark was used on the goods or services that are remotely associated with his business.

Prior use rights

As stated above, a mere prior use is insufficient to be protected under the Trademark Law. Prior user is entitled to defense for trademark infringement only where the mark is “widely recognized by consumers” as identifying the goods or services of the prior user at the filing date of initial trademark application by the registrant under Article 32.


Unauthorized use of the mark that is the same as or similar to the registered mark constitutes trademark infringement under Articles 25 and 37(i).

As a matter of law, the Trademark Law does not provide broader protection of famous trademarks in enforcement. No specific provision is given to prohibit famous trademark dilution and parody. There is a considerable gray zone in the Trademark Law when it comes to the unauthorized use of “non-similar” marks that are likely to cause confusion with famous trademarks.

PUMA’s Fight Against Logo Parody

On August 1, 2019, the Japan Patent Office (JPO) decided to invalidate trademark registration no. 5861923 for composite mark consisting of a word “KUMA”, which means ‘bear’ in Japanese, and the bear device by finding a likelihood of confusion with a world-renowned sports brand, PUMA and detrimental effect to public policy or morality.
[Invalidation case no. 2019-890001]

KUMA device mark

Disputed mark (see below) was filed on January 7, 2016 by a Japanese business entity in Hokkaido, Japan’s most northerly main island, an otherworldly volcanic land with eastern Asia’s highest concentration of brown bears, over various goods in class 25 including sportswear and shoes.

Precedently, applicant applied for registration of following trademarks, consist of four alphabets in bold font and an animal silhouette facing left depicted in the upper right of the alphabets, on goods in classes 9, 14, 16, 24, 25 and 28, but in vain.

“UUMA” means ‘horse’, “BUTA” means ‘pig’, “KUMA” means ‘bear’ in Japanese. It is obvious that both literal element and figurative element of respective mark give rise to a same meaning, which is the same for PUMA.

It is likely the applicant intended to use these marks on souvenirs from Hokkaido since we get accustomed to see scenes at a famous tourist spot that T-shirts and other small items displayed at gift shops parody famous brands by featuring local specialty to attract tourists for fun.

PUMA’s Opposition / Invalidation Trial

On September 26, 2016, PUMA SE filed an opposition against the KUMA mark based on Article 4(1)(vii) and 4(1)(xv) of the Trademark Law. PUMA argued relevant consumers or traders are likely to confuse or misconceive a source of disputed mark with PUMA when used on designated goods in class 25 because of a high reputation and close resemblance between PUMA logo and the KUMA mark.

The Opposition Board admitted a high degree of popularity and reputation of PUMA logo, however, the Board dismissed the opposition entirely due to unlikelihood of confusion as a result of low degree of similarity between the marks (Opposition case no. 2016-900308).

Subsequently, PUMA SE entrusted the case to MARKS IP LAW FIRM. On New Year’s Eve of 2018, MARKS IP LAW FIRM on behalf of PUMA SE requested for an invalidation trial and sought to annul the KUMA mark on the same grounds.

Invalidation Decision

The Invalidation Board reversed the opposition decision and decided in favor of PUMA by finding that:

  1. PUMA logo has been continuously famous as a source indicator of PUMA in connection with sports shoes, sportswear and others among relevant consumers and traders in Japan.
  2. Configuration of PUMA logo looks unique, creative, and impressive in itself.
  3. Regardless of visual difference in detail between the marks, overall impression of both marks is quite similar.
  4. Given close association between designated goods in class 25 and PUMA business, relevant consumers of the goods with an ordinary care are likely to confuse its source with PUMA
  5. Besides, it is presumed the current registrant of disputed mark was knowingly assigned a similar KUMA mark that applicant had a fraudulent intent to free-ride and dilute PUMA’s goodwill.
  6. If so, current registrant must have filed disputed mark with a fraudulent intention to dilute or do harm to PUMA’s goodwill given a close resemblance of between disputed mark and a rejected KUMA mark (see above right).

Based on the foregoing, the JPO decided to invalidate disputed marks based on Article 4(1)(xv) as well as 4(1)(vii) of the Japan Trademark Law.