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 Ruling on Distinctiveness of Position Mark

On August 27, 2020, the Japan IP High Court ruled to affirm the Japan Patent Office (JPO) decision and rejected TM application no. 2016-34650 for a position mark consisting of fourteen open ellipses built-in grip section of cutting combs in class 21 due to a lack of inherent distinctiveness. [Court case no. Reiwa1(Gyo-ke)10143]

YS Park Cutting Comb

The YS Park Cutting Comb features a non-slip grip section with fourteen air ellipses spaced in 1cm intervals to allow for great flexibility and sectioning.

Allegedly, the comb has been distributed in many countries and its annual sales increased to 170,000~27,000 pieces for the last five years.

Position Mark

Plaintiff, a Japanese corporation to distribute the YS Park Cutting Comb since 1989, sought for registration for fourteen open ellipses built-in grip section of the Cutting Comb as a Position Mark (see below) on March 28, 2016.

In Japan, by an enactment of the New Trademark Law in 2014, new types of mark, namely, color, sound, position, motion, hologram, was allowed for trademark registration since April 2015.

JPO decision

On September 17, 2019, the JPO refused the position mark under Article 3(1)(vi) of the Trademark Law by finding that there are plenty of competitor’s combs with a design, pattern, hole, or pit in short intervals on the grip section and it gives rise to an impression of the decorative or functional linear pattern as a whole. If so, relevant consumers at the sight of cutting comb bearing the position mark would just conceive it as a pattern for decorative or functional indication, not as a source indicator. Besides, consecutive use on the YS Park Cutting Comb over a decade would be insufficient to acquire secondary meaning from the produced evidence and business practice in relation to cutting comb. [Appeal case no. 2018-8775]

Article 3(1)(vi) is a provision to comprehensively prohibit from registering any mark lacking inherent distinctiveness.

Any trademark to be used in connection with goods or services pertaining to the business of an applicant may be registered, unless the trademark:
(vi) is in addition to those listed in each of the preceding items, a trademark by which consumers are not able to recognize the goods or services as those pertaining to a business of a particular person.

To contend, the applicant filed a lawsuit to the IP High Court on October 29, 2019, and demanded cancellation of the decision.

IP High Court Ruling

This is the 2nd court case for the IP High Court to hear the registrability of Position Mark.

At the outset, the court stated the distinctiveness of Position Mark shall be assessed as a whole by taking account of a constituent of the mark and its position on goods or services.

The court upheld fact-findings by the JPO that plenty of competitors advertise and provide cutting combs with a pattern, pit, or open holes in short intervals on the grip section to enhance its function. In this regard, it is unlikely that relevant consumers (general consumers on the case) would consider the whole pattern as a source indicator of the comb. The court pointed that plaintiff has promoted features of fourteen open ellipses on YS Park Cutting Comb with an advertisement of “Air Suspension Function” in fact. If so, consumers would find the open holes as a functional indication.

Plaintiff produced interviews and statements by beauticians, hairstylists, school officials/staff of Cosmetology and Beauty school and argued the secondary meaning of the Position mark, however, the court negated the allegation on the ground that such evidence is insufficient and irrelevant to demonstrate acquired distinctiveness since the goods in question shall be broadly targeted to general consumers. Thus, the court decided the JPO did not error in finding secondary meaning in the case.

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.

Fast Track Trademark Examination – Japan Patent Office

At present, applicant will wait at least 12 months from when trademark is filed until it becomes registered by the Japan Patent Office (JPO).

Accelerated Trademark Examination

To meet a need of earlier registration, JPO has introduced “Accelerated Trademark Examination” which enables trademark application to be registered in two or three months.
However, since it requires applicant to demonstrate actual use of applied mark on at least one of designated goods and services, if applicant has yet to use the mark, such applications have no way but to be in a long queue for JPO examination.

Fast Track Trademark Examination

Newly introduced “Fast Track Trademark Examination” provides an option to achieve earlier registration for non-use trademark owners. According to announcement from JPO, the Fast Track Examination shortens trademark examination period to 6 (six) months on average.

Excerpt from the JPO website

If trademark application meets with following conditions, your trademark will be freely on the fast track without request.

  1. Good and services initially designated under the application are all listed on the “Examination Guidelines for Similar Goods and Services”, “Regulation for Enforcement of the Trademark Act”, or “International Classification of Goods and Services (Nice Classification)”; and
  2. No amendment has been made with respect to goods and services by the time JPO commences examination; and
  3. Applied mark does not belong to non-traditional trademark, international applications under the Madrid system, or partial 3D (three dimensional) mark.

JPO adopts the Fast Track Examination to trademark application filed on or after February 1, 2020.

Further information is available from here.

First ruling by IP High Court on New Type of Trademark in Japan

On February 14 2020, the Japan IP High Court ruled to uphold the Japan Patent Office (JPO) decision and rejected TM application no. 2016-009831 for a 3D position mark consisting of three virtual images of oil stove flame due to a lack of inherent and acquired distinctiveness.
[Case no. Reiwa1(Gyo-ke)10125]

TOYOTOMI Oil Stove “Rainbow”

TOYOTOMI CO., LTD., a Japanese company, the world’s first manufacturer of kerosene-fired portable cooking stove in 1952, has allegedly produced their convection type lantern-like design oil stoves in the name of “Rainbow” since 1980.

By means of a heat-resistant glass coated on the inner surface of vertical cylindrical heat chamber of the Rainbow stoves, virtual images of orange flame appear floatingly above actual flame when stoves are in use (see below).

3D Position mark

TOYOTOMI sought for registration for its virtual images of flame in connection with convection type oil stoves in class 11 as a 3D Position mark (see below) on January 29, 2016.

In a description of the mark, applicant specified:

applied mark is a position mark consisting of 3D virtual image of three flame rings appeared floatingly above the flame burning on stove at the inside of vertical cylindrical heat chamber. Devices colored in blue and red would not constitute an element of applied mark.

In Japan, by enactment of the New Trademark Law in 2014, new type of mark, namely, color, sound, position, motion, hologram, was allowed for trademark registration since April 2015.

According to the JPO database, more than 480 position marks were applied for registration under the New Trademark Law and 78 position marks are successfully registered as of now (Feb 29, 2020).

JPO decision

On March 2, 2018, the JPO examiner refused applied mark under Article 3(1)(iii) of the Trademark Law based on the fact that mechanism of 3D virtual shape of three flame rings was exclusively protected under Patent No. 1508319 which was expired on July 25, 2000. According to technical specifications of the patent, it is admitted that the 3D shape was purely achieved as a result of utilitarian functionality and aesthetic functionality. If so, the JPO finds it inappropriate to register the shape as a trademark because of unfair and detrimental effect to the public caused by prospective perpetual exclusivity to the shape itself that should have been a public domain under the Patent Law.

Besides, the JPO considered applied mark has not acquired distinctiveness (secondary meaning) as a source indicator of applicant’s products regardless of substantial use for more than three decades.

Subsequently, JPO dismissed an appeal on the same ground. [Appeal case no. 2018-007479, on August 30, 2019]

To contend, applicant filed a lawsuit to the IP High Court on September 26, 2019 and demanded cancellation of the decision.

IP High Court ruling

This lawsuit was the very first case for the IP High Court to take up new type of trademark at the open court.

The court held a shape of goods shall not be protectable as a source indicator if it just aims to achieve function of the goods from utilitarian and aesthetic viewpoints. If such shape per se is apparently destined to achieve functions of goods, it shall be refused for registration under Article 3(1)(iii) of the Trademark Law.

In this regard, the court found, applied mark simply consists of a shape destined to achieve utilitarian and aesthetic functions of goods in question, since it is considered virtual images of floating flame ring aim to increase heating effect of convection type oil stoves.

A mere fact that none of competitors have used identical or similar shape with applied mark on oil stoves would be irrelevant to assess distinctiveness of mark under Article 3(1)(iii).

Even if three flame rings do not physically constitute a shape of oil stoves, the court would see the JPO did not error in adapting Article 3(1)(iii) on the case.

As for acquired distinctiveness, the court had no reason to believe applied mark acquired secondary meaning through actual use based on the produced evidence. TOYOTOMI allegedly held top-rank market share (22.5%) of convection type oil stoves in Japan and annually delivered 29,000 stoves on average for the last seven years. However, the court pointed out the TOYOTOMI Rainbow stoves share just 2% when radiation type oil stoves are counted. Besides, provided that applied mark is not visible to consumers who visit shops to purchase oil stoves from appearance of the goods when turned off, it is questionable whether average consumers would conceive the 3D shape as a source indicator, rather than a functional shape of oil stoves.

Based on the foregoing, the IP High Court upheld JPO decision.