KUMAMON triumphs over bear mascot trademark battle

The Japan Patent Office (JPO) sided with Kumamon and declared invalidation of trademark registration no. 5997141 for a bear-like design mark due to a likelihood of confusion with Kumamon.
[Invalidation case no. 2019-890004, Gazette issue date: February 28, 2020]

KUMAMON

Have you ever heard of “Kumamon”?

Nowadays, we are accustomed to see there are many organizations that create and use mascots to further their brands. Kumamon is a cuddly character with its pitch-black fur, red cheeks and white eyes designed as the official mascot (see below) of the Kumamoto Prefecture, a small prefecture in western Japan.

Kumamon made its debut in 2011 as part of a tourism promotion campaign for the Kyushu high-speed railway line. At the time a wave of local municipalities and companies sought to use ‘yuru-kyara’, or ‘relaxing characters’, to promote local products and attractions. Kumamon was hired as a part-time civil servant at Kumamoto before being elevated to sales manager. Such topics generated headlines and helped push Kumamon’s popularity beyond Kumamoto.

As an iconic symbol of ‘relaxing characters’, Kumamon has become a social and cultural phenomenon nationwide. Sales of goods using the Kumamon mascot topped 150 billion yen ($1.4 billion) in 2018.

To protect and promote the mascot, the Kumamoto Prefecture has registered its figurative image reproduced in 2D for various classed of goods and services in Japan as well as neighboring countries.

Disputed Mark

On March 21, 2017, Unique Design Company Limited (Belize) , sought to register the mark consisting of a bear-like design and three Chinese characters “熊本熊” which mean Kumamoto’s bear (see below) to be used on goods in class 11. The JPO granted protection of opposed mark on October 27, 2017.

Invalidation Trial

To challenge the validity of disputed mark, on January 25, 2019, the Kumamoto Prefecture filed an invalidation action to the JPO based on Article 4(1)(vi), (vii), (xi), (xv) and (xix) of the Japan Trademark Law. Kumamoto Prefecture argued that the figurative element of disputed mark closely resembles to the Kumamon character well-known for the official mascot of the Kumamoto Prefecture from appearance. Besides, the literal element of disputed mark gives rise to a similar meaning related to the Kumamoto Prefecture and Kumamon. If so, disputed mark as a whole shall be invalid due to a likelihood of confusion with Kumamon.

JPO Decision

The Invalidation Board of JPO found that:

  1. Unquestionably, Kumamon has acquired a remarkable degree of reputation and popularity nationwide as the official mascot of the Kumamoto Prefecture well before the filing date of disputed mark through continuous activities, promotions, and actual use on various goods since 2011. In addition, it becomes public among relevant consumers that the literal element of disputed mark “熊本熊” gets to be known as a Chinese name of Kumamon in China and neighboring countries.
  2. Since Kumamon has distinctive features visually different from wild bear, the mascot shall be deemed unique, creative, and impressive in itself.
  3. From appearance the bear-like design of disputed mark is confusingly similar to Kumamon. It gives rise to a similar meaning to Kumamon, the mascot originated from bear in the Kumamoto Prefecture. Likewise, the literal element of disputed mark gives rise to the same meaning. If so, both marks are considered highly similar.
  4. Due to free-use policy for brand promotion to domestic merchants (Kumamoto lets domestic companies use the character for free, but charges a license fee of a few percent on product sales by foreign companies), Kumamon mascot has been commercially used on wide range of goods over 10,000 items. 7-year cumulative sales exceed 510 billion JP-yen. If so, disputed goods in class 11, e.g. oil stoves, heaters, pocket warmers, electric foot warmers, shall be closely associated with the Kumamon goods in channels and consumers.

Based on the above findings, the Board concluded that relevant consumers and traders are likely to confuse disputed mark with Kumamon or misconceive a source from any entity systematically or economically connected with the Kumamoto Prefecture. Thus, disputed mark shall be invalidated in violation of Article 4(1)(xv) of the Trademark Law.

Trademark dispute over Shogun Emblem of the Samurai Era

In a recent appeal trial over trademark dispute, the Trademark Appeal Board within the Japan Patent Office (JPO) overturned the Examiner’s determination and held that a combination mark with Tokugawa crest image and literal elements written in Chinese characters is dissimilar to, and unlikely to cause confusion with a senior trademark registration for the “TOKUGAWA CREST” device mark in connection with pickled plums of class 29.
[Appeal case no. 2018-6893, Gazette issue date: March 29, 2019]

 

TOKUGAWA CREST

The Tokugawa clan was the family that established the Edo shogunate, also known as the Tokugawa shogunate, (1603–1867), the final period of traditional Japan, a time of internal peace, political stability, and economic growth under the shogunate (military dictatorship) founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Tokugawa shogunate continued to rule Japan for a remarkable 250 years and ended in 1868, with the Meiji Restoration when the Emperor regained power.

The Tokugawa crest was a circle in closing three leaves of the awoi (a species of mallow, found in Central Japan) joined at the tips, the stalks touching the circle (see below).

This gilded trefoil is gleaming on the property of the shogun and mausoleum even now in Japan.

 

YUME-AWOI

Kabushiki Kaisha Kiwa-Nouen Products, a Japanese merchant dealing with plums and its products filed a trademark application for a combination mark with Tokugawa crest image and literal elements written in Chinese characters (see below) covering pickled plums in class 29 on June 21, 2016 [TM application no. 2016-72127].

Three Chinese characters “紀州梅” in the upper right of the mark lacks distinctive since the term means plums made in Kishu, the name of a province in feudal Japan (the area corresponds to nowadays Wakayama Prefecture and southern Mie Prefecture), as a whole. Two characters “夢葵” in the center of the mark to be pronounces as “yume-awoi” is obviously a coined word and distinctive in relation to pickled plums.

The mark is actually in use on high-class pickled plums produced by applicant.

Tokugawa Museum

Going through substantive examination by the JPO examiner, applied mark was totally refused registration based on Article 4(1)(vi), (vii), (xv) of the Trademark Law on the ground that the mark contains a device resembling the Tokugawa crest which becomes famous as a source indicator of ‘Public Interest Incorporated Foundation The Tokugawa Museum’.
If so, using the mark on the designated goods by an unauthorized entity may free-ride goodwill vested in the Tokugawa crest and anything but conductive to the public interest. Besides, relevant consumers are likely to confuse or misconceive pickled plums using applied mark with goods from The Tokugawa Museum or any business entity systematically or economically connected with the museum.

Article 4(1)(vi) is a provision to refuse any mark which is identical with, or similar to, a famous mark indicating the State, a local government, an agency thereof, a non-profit organization undertaking a business for public interest, or a non-profit enterprise undertaking a business for public interest.

Article 4(1)(vii) of the Trademark Law prohibits any mark likely to cause damage to public order or morality from registration.

Article 4(1)(xv) provides that a mark shall not be registered where it is likely to cause confusion with other business entity’s well-known goods or services, to the benefit of brand owner and users’ benefits.

 

Applicant filed an appeal against the refusal on May 21, 2018 and argued dissimilarity of the marks.

 

Appeal Board decision

The Board reversed the examiner’s refusal and admitted applied mark to registration by stating that:

It becomes trade practice to print family crest on the packaging of food products. Especially, trefoil awoi crest has been commonly used on the packaging of specialty products or souvenir from Aichi (Owari), Wakayama (Kishu) and Ibaragi (Mito) Prefectures where descendants from clan founder Tokugawa Ieyasu’s three youngest sons governed during the Edo shogunate. Besides, from appearance, Tokugawa crest image in applied mark looks like a background pattern and thus relevant consumers are unlikely to aware that the pattern serves the legally defined role of a trademark because the image is colored washier than literal elements. If so, two Chinese characters “夢葵” of the mark functions primarily as a source indicator.

Based on the foregoing, the Board considered, given the Tokugawa crest image in the applied mark does not play a role of source indicator at all, both marks are dissimilar and unlikely to cause confusion from visual, phonetic and conceptual points of view even if the Tokugawa crest becomes famous as a source indicator of Public Interest Incorporated Foundation The Tokugawa Museum in fact. Likewise, the Board found no specific reason to cause damage to public order or morality from applied mark.

Partial revision of the Japan Trademark Law in force on May 27, 2019

Partial revision of the Japan Trademark Law which aims to amend the Article 31 (1) was promulgated on May 17, 2019 and takes effect on May 27, 2019.

 

Non-exclusive license for famous mark owned by public entity

Existing Trademark Law permits to register a mark which is identical with, or similar to, a famous mark representing (i) the nation, (ii) a local government, (iii) an agency thereof, (iv) a non-profit organization undertaking a business for public interest, or (v) a non-profit activity for public interest [Article 4(1)(vi)], provided that an applicant of the mark corresponds with the public entity from (i) to (iv), or an individual who is managing (v) [Article 4(2)].

 

Article 31 is a provision pertinent to “non-exclusive trademark license”.

Under the existing law, owner of trademark right (licensor) may grant a non-exclusive permission for the use of its mark to another [Article 31(1)]. In the meantime, the article has an exceptional clause and disallows a non-exclusive license for the use of registered mark which was granted based on Article 4(2).

 

New Revision

According to announcement from the Japan Patent Office, “Recently, public entity aiming to encourage regional development and collaboration with industry gets involved in necessity to advertise or promote goods or products originated from the entity. Inter alia, universities/colleges are desirous to secure financial resources, publicize achievements of academic research and increase publicity of the school by means of granting permission for the use of famous mark to a business entity”.

 

By the revision, the exceptional clause is deleted from Article 31(1).

From May 27, 2019, it enables an owner of trademark right for famous mark, i.e. (i) the nation, (ii) a local government, (iii) an agency thereof, (iv) a non-profit organization undertaking a business for public interest, or (v) an individual who manages non-profit activity for public interest, to grant “non-exclusive license” permission for the use of its famous mark.

It should be noted that the revision does not apply to “exclusive trademark license” provided in Article 30 (1). It remains impermissible. 

Trademark race for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games

The Appeal Board of Japan Patent Office (JPO) refused Trademark Application No. 2016-85559 for a device mark consisting of metallic rings on goods of metallic fishing nets in class 6 on the ground of conflict with Article 4(1)(vi) of the Japan Trademark Law.

Metallic ring device mark

Mark in question ( see below) was filed on August 8, 2016 by designating goods of metallic fishing nets in class 6.

Article 4(1)(vi) of the Trademark Law

The JPO examiner refused the mark by citing the Olympic Rings based on Article 4(1)(vi) of the Trademark Law.
Article 4(1)(vi) is a provision to refuse any mark which is identical with, or similar to, a famous mark indicating the State, a local government, an agency thereof, a non-profit organization undertaking a business for public interest, or a non-profit enterprise undertaking a business for public interest.
JPO trademark examination guidelines clearly refer to the Olympic Symbol as an example of the mark to indicate a non-profit business for public interest.

Olympic Rings

The Olympic symbol, widely known throughout the world as the Olympic Rings, is the visual ambassador of Olympism for billions of people.
The Olympic symbol is defined in Olympic Charter, Rule 8 as

“The Olympic symbol consists of five interlaced rings of equal dimensions (the Olympic rings), used alone, in one or in five different colours. When used in its five-colour version, these colours shall be, from left to right, blue, yellow, black, green and red. The rings are interlaced from left to right; the blue, black and red rings are situated at the top, the yellow and green rings at the bottom.”

The Olympic Rings, publicly presented for the first time in 1913, remain a global representation of the Olympic movement and its activity.

Appeal Board decision

In an appeal, the Board sustained examiner’s refusal and decided the mark in question shall be refused on the same ground.
The Board stated that mark in question has same configuration with the Olympic Rings and thus consumers at the sight of the mark are likely to conceive a well-known Olympic symbol from appearance regardless of difference in small rings to connect five symbolic rings.
[Appeal case no. 2018-1590, Gazette issued date : August 31, 2018]

Trademark battle: OLYMPIC vs Ocalympic

In a TM invalidation appeal filed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) who disputed TM registration no. 5608031 for the mark “Ocalympic” covering services of organization of musical performances played by ocarinas and others in class 41 shall be invalid due to conflict with “OLYMPIC”, an international sports festival organized by IOC, the Appeal Board of JPO  decided in favor of IOC and declared invalidation of the “Ocalympic” mark based on Article 4(1)(vi) of the Trademark Law.
[Case no. 2016-890064,  Decisively  fixed date: September 4, 2017]


Article 4(1)(vi)

Trademark shall not be registered if the trademark is identical with, or similar to, a famous mark indicating the State, a local government, an agency thereof, a non-profit organization undertaking a business for public interest, or a non-profit enterprise undertaking a business for public interest.

Famous mark to represent public business by NPO

The Board admitted the OLYMPIC marks has acquired substantial degree of popularity and reputation worldwide as a source indicator of the Olympic Games organized by NPO for public interest at the time of application for invalidated mark based on the facts that IOC is an international NPO established on June 23, 1894, an organizer of the Olympic Games, has been using the marks to represent the Games which correspond to an undertaking for public interest.

Assessment of similarity between marks

Since literal configuration of the Invalidated mark, having an initial letter “O” and spellings of “LYMPIC(lympic)” in the latter part, is identical with a coined mark “OLYMPIC”, the mark gives rise to an impression closely associated with “OLYMPIC” from appearance.

A mere verbal difference on second sound “ca” shall not be material as a whole in view of common pronunciation in initial sound “O” and “LYMPIC” in the latter part. Besides, when pronouncing each mark at a breath, relevant audience shall find resemblance in tone and a sense of language. Thus, both marks are deemed similar in phonetical point of view.

Regarding conceptual point of view, even if the Invalidated mark is admittedly a coined term, it still gives rise to a meaning of the Olympic Games.

Therefore, considering every circumstance, both marks are deemed similar.


Provided that Invalidated mark combines “ocarinas” with “Olympic”, I feel above assessment inappropriate. Toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, it is anticipated that such sort of mark may appear. Be on high alert for famous mark “OLYMPIC”!