Louboutin 2nd Defeat in Litigation over Red Soles

By order of December 26, 2022, the IP High Court ruled to dismiss an appeal taken by Louboutin against the Tokyo District Court ruling that denied a source-indicating function of Louboutin’s red soles.

[Appeal court case no. Reiwa4(ne)10051]

Appellant, Christian Louboutin SAS, brought an appeal against the Tokyo District Court ruling decided on March 11, 2022.

In May 2019, Louboutin sued Eizo Collection Co., Ltd., a Japanese company that produced ladies’ shoes with red-colored rubber soles, and sought a permanent injunction as well as damages in the amount of JPY4,208,000 under the Unfair Competition Prevention Law. The Tokyo District Court did not side with Louboutin by finding an insufficient reputation of Louboutin’s red soles perse as a source indicator and thus unlikelihood of confusion.
See details here.

The IP High Court paid attention to the following factors to assess the likelihood of confusion in the case.

  1. Relevant consumers of high-heels (women from their 20s to 50s) are most likely to try on multiple pairs of shoes at a physical store and select the ones that fit them prior to the purchase.
  2. The market for women’s high heels can be divided into three categories: (1) luxury brand products, (2) affordable brand products, and (3) inexpensive no-name products. Undoubtedly, Louboutin’s high-heels priced at JPY80,000 and over are classified into category (1). In the meantime, Eizo’s shoes priced at JPY17,000 or less belong to category (2).
  3. Every high-heel bears a brand name or logo on the insole so that consumers can easily distinguish its supplier.
  4. E-commerce websites post not only images of ladies’ shoes but also the brand and condition of respective goods in advertisements.

Based on the foregoing, the judge found, irrespective of the resemblance in color on the outsole, no likelihood of confusion between both shoes.

As for the reputation of Louboutin’s red soles, the IP High Court admitted certain consumers may recognize the red soles as a source indicator of Louboutin, however, the judge questioned if the soles have acquired a remarkable reputation among relevant consumers in general based on the research targeted women, in their 20s to 50s accustomed to wearing high-heels, residing in major cities that revealed only 51.6 % of the interviewees answered Louboutin at the sight of a high-heel with red-colored sole and a fact that Louboutin has not been an exclusive supplier of red sole shoes for women.

JPO Rejected Colormark of Louboutin’s red soles

On June 7, 2022, the Appeal Board of the Japan Patent Office (JPO) decided to reject a red color mark used on the soles of high heels by Christian Louboutin due to a lack of inherent and acquired distinctiveness.

[Appeal case no. 2019-29921]

Louboutin’s Red Soles

Fast on the heels of the introduction to register color marks in Japan, Christian Louboutin filed a trademark application for a color mark consisting of a red (Pantone 18-1663TP) colored in soles (see below) for use on high heels in class 25 on April 1, 2015 (TM App no. 2015-29921).

The JPO examiner refused the color mark based on Article 3(1)(iii) of the Japan Trademark Law by stating red color has been commonly used on shoes to enhance the aesthetic appearance and attract consumers of high heels. Red-colored heels and shoes have been widely distributed before the launch of Louboutin shoes in 1996 in Japan and even now. Under the circumstance and trade practice, the examiner had no reason to believe the color mark perse has acquired distinctiveness as a source indicator of Louboutin among relevant consumers in Japan. If so, the mark shall not be registrable under Article 3(2).

Louboutin filed an appeal against the refusal and disputed the inherent and acquired distinctiveness of Louboutin’s red soles as a color mark on October 29, 2019.

To bolster the acquired distinctiveness of the red soles, Louboutin conducted an online brand awareness survey to target 3,149 females, aging from 20 to 50 and having a domicile in Tokyo, Osaka, or Nagoya where Louboutin have stores. The survey demonstrated that 43.35% of the interviewees conceived of Louboutin in the answer to an unaided open-ended question (Q1). 53.99% associated the color mark with Louboutin in the answer to a closed-ended question, where it mentioned Louboutin along with other close competitors (Q2). Louboutin argued, that from the survey, it is obvious that Louboutin’s red soles have acquired distinctiveness among relevant consumers and shall be registered under Article 3(2) even though lacking inherent distinctiveness.

JPO Appeal Board decision

The Appeal Board affirmed the examiner’s findings and found the color mark perse lacks distinctiveness in relation to the goods in question by taking into account of fact that a lot of shoes with red-colored soles have been distributed by other shoemakers in Japan.

In the assessment of acquired distinctiveness, the Board pointed out a fact that more than half of the interviewees who live in the region where Louboutin stores are could not conceive of Louboutin in the answer to Q1. The survey was insufficient to admit acquired distinctiveness of the applied mark among relevant consumers nationwide, the Board found.

Even among the consumers who could associate the color mark with Louboutin, the Board had an opinion that as a matter of fact, they will be unable to distinguish Louboutin high heels from competitors’ shoes simply by means of red-colored soles without the aid of another source indicator, a wordmark “Louboutin”, used on the shoes given a lot of red-soled heels and shoes have been distributed by competitors as follows.

Besides, under the current trade practice, the Board considered it will inevitably cause a severe disorder and excessive restriction to competitors if it allows registration of a red color that has been freely used in the relevant industry to enhance the aesthetic appearance of shoes.

Based on the foregoing, the JPO concluded the color mark shall not be registrable under Article 3(2) as well.

Update of Colormark in Japan – Who awarded the 9th registration?

On March 25, 2022, the Japan Patent Office (JPO) granted protection of a color mark that has been used on the package of the first and a long-selling Japanese instant ramen “Nissin Chicken Ramen”. It is the 9th case for JPO to admit registration since opening the gate to color mark in April 2015.

Nissin Chicken Ramen

In 1958, NISSIN FOODS founder Momofuku Ando invented the world’s first instant noodles: Chicken Ramen, paired with a rich broth made of chicken and vegetables.

Nissin Chicken Ramen is a long-selling Japanese instant ramen loved by many generations and considered the world’s first instant noodles. According to the company’s release, more than 5 billion packages of Chicken Ramen had been sold.

Color mark on Package

The JPO opened the gate to Non-Traditional trademarks, namely, color, sound, position, motion, and hologram, in April 2015.

On July 12, 2018, Nissin Foods sought for registration of color combination on the Chicken Ramen package on instant noodles in class 30.

JPO examiner raised his objection because of a lack of distinctiveness based on Article 3(1)(iii) of the Trademark Law. However, the examiner eventually granted protection by finding acquired distinctiveness of the color mark (TM Reg no. 6534071).

Low Success rate -1.6%

563 color marks have participated in a race for trademark registration at the JPO as of now (May 14, 2022). 9 color marks could manage to award registration.

It is noteworthy that none of them is a mark consisting of a single color.

A previous post relating to colormark is accessible from here.

Hermes Challenge to Register Packaging Colors

HERMES INTERNATIONAL, a French luxury fashion house, is in a legal battle to register its iconic packaging colors, orange and brown, as a color mark in Japan.

Color mark of Hermes box

On October 25, 2018, HERMES INTERNATIONAL filed a trademark application for its iconic packaging colors, orange and brown (see below), as a color mark to be used on various goods in class 3, 14, 16, 18, and retail services in class 35 with the Japan Patent Office (JPO) [TM application no. 2018-133223].

Article 3(1)(iii) and 3(1)(vi)

The JPO examiner rejected the color mark under Article 3(1)(iii) and 3(1)(vi) of the Japan Trademark Law by stating that colors per se are unlikely to play a role in source indicator because they are frequently aimed to attract consumers in association with function or quality of goods and services. Because of it, relevant consumers at the sight of goods or services bearing the applied color would not see the combination of colors, orange and brown, as a source indicator.

Acquired Distinctiveness

Hermes argued acquired distinctiveness of the color combination as a result of substantial use on Hermes box for the past six decades from the 1960s onward.

A bottleneck is that the Hermes box contains its name “HERMES” and horse and carriage logo as a conspicuous source indicator. Hermes conducted market research to demonstrate the acquired distinctiveness of the packaging color per se. The research targeted high-income men and women in their 30s to 50s with incomes JPY10,000,000 and above. According to the research report, 36.9% of the interviewees answered Hermes when shown three boxes in different shapes with the color mark. 43.1% chose Hermes from ten options.

JPO Rejection

The JPO examiner did not find the research persuasive to support acquired distinctiveness among relevant consumers of the goods and services in question.

The examiner stated the relevant consumers shall not be limited to the high-income class. Besides, even among high-income consumers, more than half of them did not link the color to Hermes. From the research, it is doubtful if relevant consumers would conceive the color per se as a source indicator.

Based on the above findings, the examiner totally rejected the applied color mark under Article 3(1)(iii) and (vi) on July 9, 2021.

HERMES INTERNATIONAL filed an appeal against the rejection on October 8, 2021.

Less than 1.5% Success Rate for Getting Color Mark Registration in Japan

Japan opened the gate to Non-Traditional trademark, namely, color, sound, position, motion, hologram, in April 2015. It seems true that, beyond expectation, JPO has a significantly high hurdle to clear.

543 applications for color marks were filed with the Japan Patent Office (JPO) as of now (Nov 15, 2020). Among them, only 8 color marks are allowed for registration.

1. Tombow Pencil “MONO” (stationery)
2. Seven-Eleven (convenience store)
3. Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group (financial service)
4. Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group (financial service)
5. Mitsubishi Pencil “UNI” (pencil)
6. Mitsubishi Pencil “HI-UNI” (pencil)
7. Family Mart (convenience store)
8. UCC Ueshima Coffee (canned coffee)

All the registered color marks consist of more than two colors. JPO has yet to register a single case of color per se.

Most single-color marks are rejected due to a lack of distinctiveness and failure to demonstrate acquired distinctiveness. Surprisingly, 492 applications (90.6%) are already rejected or voluntarily withdrawn by the applicant.

Red Bull was unsuccessful in registering a combination of dark blue and silver on energy drinks in class 32.

Hermes also failed to register a three-color combination over various goods in class 14, 18, and 25.

43 applications are in review with the JPO as of now. Remarkably, Christian Louboutin fights for the appeal against the refusal of its iconic red-sole.

Japan IP High Court Refuses Trademark Protection for Orange Color Mark

On 23 June 2020, the Japan IP High Court decided a case concerning a single color mark that was rejected for registration by the Appeal Board of the Japan Patent Office (“JPO”).

Single Color Mark

On 1 April 2015, Hitachi Construction Machinery (“Hitachi”) filed an application for trademark registration with JPO consisting of a single color per se, namely orange (Munsell: 0.5YR5.6/11.2) over the goods of hydraulic excavators, wheel loaders, road loaders, loaders [earch moving machines] in class 7, and rigid dump trucks in class 12 (TM Application no. 2015-29999).

TM Application No. 2015-29999

By the decision of 19 September 2019, the Appeal Board of JPO declared the applied color mark to be refused in contravention of Article 3(1)(iii) and Article 3(2) of the Trademark Law, finding that the graphic representation of the color mark constituted the “mere single orange color, without contours”. If so, the mark is not inherently distinctive and it is lacking acquired distinctiveness. In the course of the appeal trial, Hitachi amended and restricted the designated goods to “hydraulic excavators”.

Article 3(2) is a provision to allow registration of any mark with which the relevant public will associate a particular source, manufacturer, or producer over time through the trademark owner’s usage.

On 30 October 2019, Hitachi appealed against the JPO decision.

IP High Court decision

At the outset, the court stated it is inevitable on the case concerning single color mark to take the interest of competitors who deal with the goods in question into consideration since allowing one trader to exclusively use this color would likely to cause unjust competitive practice in form of monopolistic power of use in favor of one trader only.

From the produced evidence, Hitachi has allegedly used the color in question on hydraulic excavators and other construction machines since 1974.

Hitachi Hydraulic Excavators

Hitachi consecutively holds a 20% market share (14.6%) of hydraulic excavators over the past four decades in Japan. The research showed that approx. 95.9 % (185 out of 193) of traders in the construction industry were able to associate the color with Hitachi.

In the meantime, several competitors use similar color on hydraulic excavators

In the decision, the court found orange color is one of the colors commonly seen in our daily life. Besides, the Japan Industrial Standard (JIS) adopts orange as a safety sign-color aiming to prevent harm to the human body and damage to properties. Because of it, at construction sites, we often see several items colored in orange, e.g. helmets, rain suits, guard fens, work clothes, tower cranes, construction vehicles.

Hitachi Hydraulic Excavators have other colors, in fact, namely, a house mark “HITACHI” colored in white, buckets (attachments), cockpits, and crawlers colored in black. If so, the applied mark shall be capable of playing the role of source indicator in combination with these. Thus, the court would not find reasonable grounds to believe that the orange color per se acquired distinctiveness as a source indicator of Hitachi’s Hydraulic Excavators.

The court even suspected credibility of the research by finding that it narrowly targeted traders or consumers who own more than 10 hydraulic excavators, precisely it showed 36.8% in light of initial research number of targets, 502 persons, and the questionnaire ‘Please answer. What maker do you think hydraulic excavator is?” was insufficient to conclude acquired distinctiveness since its answer may simply suggest one of the colors of Hitachi’s Hydraulic Excavators.

Even if hydraulic excavators market in Japan is an oligopoly with five makers accounting for 90 % of the industry share, and the orange color has been consecutively used by Hitachi only, it does not mean every competitor agreed to refrain from using the color given orange has been used on various goods in the construction and agriculture industry in general.

Based on the foregoing, the court affirmed the JPO decision and dismissed Hitachi’s allegations in contravention of Article 3(1)(iii) and 3(2).

Click here to see the court decision in Japanese.

Thus, it is obvious that a very high standard of distinctiveness needs to be attached to a single-color mark if the same has to be claimed for trademark protection.

This case was a second court decision concerning a single color mark.
The first case, Reiwa1(Gyo-ke)10119 ruled on March 11, 2020, also ended with the rejection of a single orange color mark in contravention of other ground, Article 3(1)(vi).

How JPO Examines Color Marks

As of now (12 July 2020), 543 color marks were applied for registration with JPO since the commencement of the Non-Traditional trademark application in April 2015.
So far, only 8 marks are successfully registered. See below.

In sum, the registration rate of color mark is barely 1.5%!
It is noteworthy none of a ‘single’ color mark has been granted to registration.