Letter of Consent in Japanese Trademark Practice

When trademark applicants receive a refusal of their trademark applications due to a conflict with a prior similar registered mark cited by the JPO examiner, how can the applicants overcome the refusal?


In some jurisdictions, it has become a routine to submit a letter of consent (LOC) issued in the name of the owner of the cited mark agreeing on the use and registration of the applied mark for the purpose of overcoming the refusal, apart from arguing against the similarities between the respective marks.


However, the Japan Patent Office (JPO) is negative to withdraw refusals arising from a conflict with a senior registered mark under Article 4(1)(xi) of the Trademark Law simply by means of LOC.


Trademark Examination Guideline (TEG) 42.111.03 in relation to Article 4(1)(xi) provides special conditions where the JPO accepts LOC and withdraws refusals as follows.

Where an applicant claims that he/she is in any of the relationships (1) and (2) with the owner of a cited trademark right and submits evidence (3), the case shall be handled as if Article 4(1)(xi) does not apply.

(1) The owner of a cited trademark right is under the control of the applicant.

(2) The applicant is under the control of the owner of a cited trademark right.

(3) Evidence to the effect that the owner of a cited trademark right agrees that the trademark as applied is to be registered.

Condition (1) and (2) – “Under the control” relation between cited owner and applicant will be satisfied if:

(a) Business of the owner of a cited trademark right of which the majority of voting rights of all shareholders are owned by the applicant;

(b) Business of the owner of a cited trademark right which has a capital alliance with the applicant and whose corporate activities are substantially under the control of the applicant, although the requirement specified in (a) above is not satisfied.


Therefore, LOC is useful only where either party has a controlling interest in the other entity, the so-called parent-child relationship between companies.

Due to the restriction, LOC would not be available in most cases to overcome the refusal based on Article 4(1)(xi).

Under the circumstance, practically, we are able to select three options.

  1. Arguing dissimilarity of mark or goods/ services 
  2. Filing a non-use cancellation against the cited mark 
  3. Transferring an applied mark to an owner of the cited mark and assigning it back after registration, vice versa.

TM Opposition: Claude Monet vs Monet Design

The Japan Patent Office (JPO) sided with ACADEMIE DES BEAUX-ARTS, an owner of Musée Marmottan Monet, and decided to cancel Japanese TM Registration no. 6245564 for a composite mark containing literal elements “Monet Design” in contravention of Article 4(1)(vii) of the Japan Trademark Law.

[Opposition case no. 2020-900171, Gazette issued date: October 29, 2021]

TM Reg no. 6245564

The opposed mark (see below) was sought for registration by a Japanese individual on various goods and services in class 16, 20, 25, 27, 35, 41, 42, and 45 on February 1, 2019.

The JPO granted protection on March 27, 2020, and published for opposition on May 12, 2020.


Opposition by ACADEMIE DES BEAUX ARTS

On July 10, 20210, before the lapse of a statutory period of two months counting from the publication date, ACADEMIE DES BEAUX-ARTS, an owner of Musée Marmottan Monet, filed an opposition. The opponent argued the opposed mark shall be canceled in contravention of Article 4(1)(vii) of the Japan Trademark Law by citing IR 958197 for the wordmark “CLAUDE MONET” (see below).

Article 4(1)(vii) of the Trademark Law prohibits any mark likely to cause damage to the social and public interest and disrupt the order of fair competition from registration. Trademark Examination Guidelines set forth any sign created after “the Name of a Historical Person or Name of a Well-Known or Famous Deceased Person” shall be objectionable under the article.

TEG provides six factors to apply the article.

  1. Popularity of the well-known or famous historical person;
  2. Acceptance of the name of the historical person among the nation or region;
  3. Availability of the name of the historical person;
  4. Relationship between the availability of the name of the historical person and the designated goods or services;
  5. Circumstance, purpose, or reason of the application; and
  6. Relationship between the historical person and the applicant.

JPO Decision

The JPO Opposition Board found the late Claude Monet has been a world-famous French painter known even among the general public in Japan. There is no doubt that the public at the sight of the word “Monet” would conceive the painter. Because of it, “Monet” has been highly recognized as an abbreviation of the late Claude Monet.

Besides, it is certain that the opponent inherits the property and paintings of Claudia Monet. In view of activities of the opponent as a public organization to exhibit, manage, and promote the paintings in France as well as other countries, the word “Monet” has not only played a significant role in the business field of sightseeing and art but also acquired substantial value as public property of France.

As for the opposed mark, the Board does not find a reason to believe that the word “Monet” inseparably combines with other elements. If so, relevant consumers are likely to consider the word “Monet” as a prominent portion of the opposed mark.

Based on the foregoing, the Board decided to cancel the opposed mark in contravention of Article 4(1)(vii).

“MONA LISA” May Smile At You

In a recent decision, the Japan Patent Office (JPO) disaffirmed the examiner’s refusal and accepted for registration of the world-famous painting, ‘Mona Lisa’ by Leonardo da Vinci.
[Appeal case no. 2020-9377, Gazette issued date: May 28, 2021]


“MONA LISA”

Disputed mark, consisting of a wordmark “MONA LISA” written in a Japanese katakana character (see below), was filed by a Japanese company, Negibito Co., Ltd on February 20, 2019, for use on ‘edible live aquatic animals; edible unprocessed seaweeds; fresh vegetables; fresh fruits; live mammals, fish [not for food], birds and insects and other goods in class 32.

Apparently, the company uses the disputed mark on specially grown scallions with a high sugar content of more than 20 degrees to be sold at JPY10,000 (USD92) for one stalk!


Article 4(1)(vii)

JPO examiner raised her objection by stating that since “MONA LISA” has been known for the world-famous painting, ‘Mona Lisa’ by Leonardo da Vinci, it shall contravene the generally accepted sense of morality or the international faith if registered. Accordingly, the disputed mark shall be rejected in contravention of Article 4(1)(vii) of the Japan Trademark Law.

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

Trademark Examination Guidelines 42.107.05 provides seven criteria to take into consideration to determine if a mark, consisting of valuable cultural products (works of art), shall contravene the article.

(i) Famousness of the cultural products
(ii) Recognition of the cultural products among citizens or local residents
(iii) State of use of the cultural products
(iv) Relationship between the state of use of the cultural products and the designated goods or services
(v) Background, purpose, and reason for filing an application
(vi) Relationship between the cultural products and the applicant
(vii) Authorized entity that manages and owns the cultural products (if any)

The applicant filed an appeal against the refusal on July 3, 2020.


JPO Appeal Board decision

The Appeal Board assessed seven criteria pertinent to the works of art “MONA LISA” in accordance with the Trademark Examination Guideline.

The Board admitted a remarkable degree of recognition and reputation of “MONA LISA” among the general public in Japan as the world-famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci.

In the meantime, the Board questions if the goods in question are closely related to works of art and art exhibitions that the term “MONA LISA” has been used.

Besides, the Board found that the term is not used to promote or develop certain regions associated with the painting in relation to the goods in question.

Based on the foregoing, the Board held that it is unlikely that registration of the disputed mark would constitute a genuine and sufficiently serious threat to a fundamental interest of society when used in connection with the goods in class 32. Therefore, the disputed mark “MONA LISA” shall not be refused on the basis of the public policy exception provided for in Article 4(1)(vii) of the Trademark Law.

IP High Court affirmed TM infringement in favor of Wenger over cross design

On April 21, 2021, the Japan IP High Court affirmed the Tokyo District Court’s decision in favor of Wenger S.A. and ruled to dismiss the appeal brought by TravelPlus International who was sentenced for trademark infringement by using cross design marks similar to the Wegner cross on backpacks. [Court case nos. IP High Court Reiwa2(ne)10060]

WENGER

Wenger, the Swiss company, has owned international registration no. 1002196 for the cross mark (see below) for use on backpacks of class 18 and others goods in Japan since November 5, 2010.

SWISSWIN

TravelPlus International (TI) distributed “SWISSWIN” brand backpacks adorned with a logo evoking the Swiss flag which consists of a cross surrounded by a square in Japan. According to the court decision, an affiliated company of TI has produced the Wenger bags as an OEM vendor.   

IP High Court ruling

The IP High Court dismissed the appeal entirely and issued a decision addressing the interpretation of similar marks evoking the Swiss flag that is unregistrable under the Trademark Law.

1. Evaluation of color difference on cross design

TI argued color difference shall be a crucial factor in this case based on Article 4(1)(iv) of the Japan Trademark Law that prohibits registration of an identical or similar mark to the Red Cross.


However, the judge denied the allegation by stating that any cross design dissimilar to the Red Cross can be registrable under the article. If so, it does not make sense to find the color difference on cross designs that would materially affect the similarity of the marks. Both marks should be assessed in their entirety by taking account of other elements as well.

2.  Assessing figurative element except for cross design

TI argued both marks should be assessed similarly on the assumption that the square plays a dominant role of source indicator based on Article 4(1)(i). Any mark identical or similar to a foreign national flag is unregistrable under the article. If so, it should not be allowed to claim trademark infringement based on the cross design which is undoubtedly similar to the Swiss flag.

However, the judge dismissed the allegation and reiterated its stance that in finding similarity of the mark, both marks should be assessed in their entirety, not only with the square but also the cross, since both marks just consist of these elements.

“FS12” can’t be registered due to a lack of distinctiveness

The Japan Patent Office (JPO) affirmed the examiner’s refusal and decided to reject a wordmark “FS12” due to a lack of inherent distinctiveness.
[Appeal case no. 2019-650019, Gazette issued date: January 29, 2021]

“FS12”

Fette Compacting GmbH filed a trademark application with the JPO via the Madrid Protocol (IR no. 1349196) for word mark “FS12” (see below) for use on goods of ‘Compression tools (parts of machines for the pharmaceutical industry, chemical industry, food industry, and metal industry) for producing pellets and tablets; die-table segments (parts of machines for the pharmaceutical industry, chemical industry, food industry, and metal industry) for rotary presses’ in class 7

Article 3(1)(v) of the Trademark Law


The JPO examiner refused the “FS12” mark in contravention of Article 3(1)(v) of the Trademark Law.

The article prohibits any mark from registering if it consists solely of a very simple and common mark.

Trademark Examination Guidelines (TEG) stipulates that a mark consisting of one or two alphabetical letters followed by a numeral, e.g. “A2”, “AB2”, is unregistrable under the article.

Followings are also enumerated as unregistrable marks under the article.

  • Numerals
  • One or two alphabetical letters, e.g. “AA”
  • Two alphabetical letters combined with “-” or “&”, e.g. “A-B”, “C&D”
  • One or two alphabetical letters accompanied by “Co.”, e.g. “AB Co.”
  • A numeral followed by one or two alphabetical letters, e.g. “2A”

The applicant filed an appeal against the refusal and argued distinctiveness of the “FS12” mark.

Appeal Board decision

However, the JPO Appeal Board dismissed the entire allegations and held that a mark consisting of a numeral and one or two alphabetical letters is incapable of identifying the source of the goods since the relevant public would perceive, without further thought, it to indicate a value, code, type, model or standard of the goods in question.

As a matter of fact, the Board found the combination of alphabetical letters, and a numeral is frequently used to indicate a value, code, type, model, or standard of the goods in relevant industries.

Given the mark “FS12” consists of two alphabetical letters and two digits written in regular font, the Board considers it is unlikely to play a role of source indicator and shall be unregistrable in contravention of Article 3(1)(v) of the Trademark Law.

To my knowledge, “FS12” would be mostly considered distinctive in other jurisdictions. Please be noted that a combination of one or two alphabetical letters and the numeral is deemed descriptive in relation to any kind of goods in Japan. 
To register such a mark, it is required to add a descriptive element or demonstrate acquired distinctiveness as a result of substantial use in Japan.

Tips to Pass the JPO Trademark Registration Exam in 2 months

“JPO Status Report 2020” reveals more applicants make use of the “Accelerated Examination” in order to obtain an earlier trademark registration.

According to the latest report, the number of requests for accelerated examination in 2019 was 8,110, which increased by 54% than the previous year.

Accelerated Trademark Examination

The accelerated examination has enabled the shortening trademark examination period to 1.7 months on average. Being that it takes 7.9 months or longer for the JPO to notify the examination result at present, accelerated examination must be appealing to an applicant who wants their brand to be registered as early as possible.

The accelerated examination is available in three cases.

[Case 1]

An applicant is in use of or likely to use an applied mark on more than one of the goods/services in the designation, and in urgent need of registration.

To meet an urgent need requirement, the applicant is required to demonstrate; (i) unauthorized third party uses an applied mark, (ii) any third party request a license to use the applied mark, (iii) any third-party demand applicant to cease use of the applied mark, or (iv) applicant filed the identical mark to a foreign country.

[Case 2]

An applicant is in use of or likely to use an applied mark on every goods/service in the designation.

[Case 3]

An applicant is in use of or likely to use an applied mark on more than one of goods/services in the designation, and the description of goods/services are all in conformity with that listed in the Examination guidelines for similar goods and services.

Besides, (v) where the applicant seeks to apply for international registration of trademark identical with the applied mark through the Madrid Protocol, it is also admitted meeting an urgent need requirement for Case 1.

Sweet, but long road to register “Ghana” on chocolates

The Japan Patent Office (JPO) allowed trademark registration of “Ghana” in connection with chocolates of class 30 by finding acquired distinctiveness as a source indicator of Lotte Co., Ltd., a Korea-based confectionary company.
[Appeal case no. 2019-8784, Gazette issued date: May 29, 2020]

Lotte “Ghana” Chocolates

Ghana chocolate is Lotte’s signature product and one of the most beloved chocolate in Japan for many years.

Lotte Co., Ltd. launched chocolates bearing the “Ghana” mark in 1964. Since then, the mark has been prominently indicated on the packages.

[“Ghana” chocolate package back in 1970’s – TM Reg no. 892507]

In 1994 of the 30th anniversary, Lotte slightly changed the design of its package and the mark and added different tastes of “Ghana” chocolates, e.g. milk chocolates, white chocolates. On new packages, the “Ghana” mark is much conspicuously and largely indicated than before.

[Current package – TM Reg no. 5405402, registered on April 8, 2011]

On December 8, 2017, Lotte sought trademark registration for the current “Ghana” logo (see below) over chocolates in class 30. [TM application no. 2017-161593]

Article 3(1)(iii) & 4(1)(xvi)

The JPO rejected the “Ghana” mark in contravention of Article 3(1)(iii) and 4(1)(xvi) of the Japan Trademark Law by stating that “Ghana” is a geographical indication corresponding to Republic of Ghana, a country of western Africa, situated on the coast of the Gulf of Guinea, one of the major producers of high-quality cocoa beans. Therefore, relevant consumers and traders at the sight of chocolates bearing the “Ghana” mark would merely conceive it of the origin of cocoa beans. Besides, whenever the mark is used on chocolates not made from Ghana cocoa beans, it inevitably misleads the quality of goods.

Acquired distinctiveness

Lotte argued the “Ghana” mark shall be protectable based on Article 3(2), even if nominally unregistrable under Article 3(1)(iii) because it has acquired distinctiveness as a result of substantial and continuous use on chocolates in Japan.

Article 3(2) of the Trademark Law

Notwithstanding the preceding paragraph, a trademark that falls under any of items (iii) to (v) of the preceding paragraph may be registered if, as a result of the use of the trademark, consumers are able to recognize the goods or services as those pertaining to a business of a particular person.

Appeal Board decision

The Appeal Board affirmed examiner’s rejection pertinent to lack of distinctiveness in connection with goods in question, however, the Board held that the “Ghana” mark would function as a source indicator of Lotte chocolates consequently and thus registrable based on the acquired distinctiveness under Article 3(2).

Allegedly Lotte “Ghana” chocolates hold top-ranked market share in Japan since 2017. In 2008, Lotte sold more than 100 million bars of “Ghana” chocolates. The annual sales exceeded 1.2 billion JP-yen in 2017.

Lotte has long been aggressive not only to advertise “Ghana” chocolates in newspapers, TV commercials, trains, and stations, but also to launch lots of chocolate events and campaigns on Valentine’s Day or Mother’s Day nationwide, and collaborations with retailers, hotels restaurants featuring ‘Ghana’ chocolates.

Due to their marketing efforts, Lotte “Ghana” brand chocolates could win several awards, e.g. Monde Selection ‘Gold Award’ (2008, 2009, 2010), D2C ‘Marketing Award’ (2002), The Japan Food Journal ‘Long Seller Award’ (2008), DENTSU ‘Excellent Award’ (2009, 2010, 2011), JR East ‘Excellent Advertisement Award’’.

Besides, “Ghana” chocolates ranked top in the brand survey published by Nikkei Research in 2016.

Lotte could eventually achieve registration of the “Ghana” mark on chocolates, but it spent more than five decades to that end.

Interestingly. Lotte has registered the “GANA” mark on goods of class 30 including chocolates since 1990. It must aim to prevent a third party from registering any mark similar to “Ghana”.

Coronavirus Impact on Trademark Procedures in Japan

The Japan Patent Office (JPO) has announced the measures it has taken to help foreign users for trademarks during the coronavirus outbreak.

Response to the office action

JPO takes flexible approaches to allow a delayed response on the condition that the applicant requests for remedy either in the following ways:

  1. To file a written request and its reason before the lapse of a deadline in advance.
  2. To file the response with an additional written explanation within a certain period after the deadline.
[Example of reasons]

Due to the negative effects of the COVID-19, Company ____ for which applicants work/Office ___ where representatives of applicants work had been closed from _____ to _____ in 2020, and the applicants/the representatives are (were) not able to implement the prescribed procedures. Nonetheless, since it has become possible to implement the procedures from ____, 2020, please accept ____ as a valid procedure.

Priority documents

JPO allows submitting priority documents within two months after deadline, namely five months from the application date, provided that the applicant simultaneously files a statement of reasons for the failure to meet its original deadline.

Appeal to refusal decision

JPO considers a request for appeal against the examiner’s decision of refusal valid if appealed within two months after foreign users go back to normal life impacted by COVID-19, but before the lapse of six months after the original deadline. It is required to state delayed reasons in the appeal brief.

Payment of registration fee

JPO considers payment of registration fee valid if appealed within two months after foreign users go back to normal life impacted by COVID-19, but before the lapse of six months after the original deadline. It is required to file a statement of delayed reasons simultaneously.

Application for renewal

JPO accepts application for renewal of trademark registration valid if appealed within two months after foreign users go back to normal life impacted by COVID-19, but before the lapse of six months after the expiry date. It is required to file a statement of delayed reasons simultaneously.

New transformed Application after revocation of international registration

JPO considers a newly transformed application for Japanese trademark application after the revocation of International Registration valid if appealed within two months after foreign users go back to normal life impacted by COVID-19, but before the lapse of six months after the original deadline. It is required to file a statement of delayed reasons simultaneously.

More and latest information is available on the JPO website. Click here.

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.

JPO registers PUERTA DEL SOL as trademark

In a recent appeal decision, the Japan Patent Office (JPO) overturned examiner’s refusal and decided to register trademark “PUERTA DEL SOL” in connection with jewels, accessories, clothing and other goods of class 14, 18, 25 and 34 by finding the term shall not be recognized as a geographical indication, one of the most famous sites in Madrid, Spain.[Appeal case no. 2019-7624, Gazette issued date: January 31, 2020]

PUERTA DEL SOL

PUERTA DEL SOL Co., Ltd., a Japanese jewels and accessories company, applied for registration of word mark “PUERTA DEL SOL” in relation to jewels, accessories, bags, clothing, shoes and other various goods of class 14, 18, 25 and 34 on January 23, 2018.

On March 19, 2019, JPO examiner refused applied mark due to lack of distinctiveness based on Article 3(1)(iii) of the Trademark Law. Examiner found that PUERTA DEL SOL, a public square in Madrid (the capital and largest city of Spain), one of the best known and busiest places in the city, the heart of Madrid’s historic center used to be on the eastern border of the city, has been known for a famous tourist spot in Madrid. Since relevant traders and consumers in Japan are familiar with circumstances that variety of souvenirs and gifts are on sale at tourist spot, it is presumed that consumers will merely conceive the applied mark just as a geographical indication in connection with the designated goods, not a source indicator.

Article 3(1)(iii)

Article 3(1) of the Trademark Law is a provision to prohibit descriptive marks from registering.

Section (iii) of the article aims to remove any mark merely or directly suggesting quality of goods and services.

“Article 3(1) Any trademark to be used in connection with goods or services pertaining to the business of an applicant may be registered, unless the trademark:

(iii) consists solely of a mark indicating, in a common manner, in the case of goods, the place of origin, place of sale, quality, raw materials, efficacy, intended purpose, quantity, shape (including shape of packages), price, the method or time of production or use, or, in the case of services, the location of provision, quality, articles to be used in such provision, efficacy, intended purpose, quantity, modes, price or method or time of provision;”

To dispute the refusal, applicant filed an appeal on June 10, 2019.

Applicant argued “PUERTA DEL SOL” shall be sufficiently distinctive in connection with the goods in question by citing facts that the term is legitimately registered even in the territory of Spain and less familiarity to Spanish language among relevant consumers with an ordinary care, Google search by a keyword “PUERA DEL SOL” reveals most of websites refer to applicant’s goods and business.
If so, it is groundless to find that relevant consumers would conceive applied mark as a geographical indication name when used on goods in question.

Appeal Board’s decision

The Appeal Board overturned the examiner’s decision by stating that relevant consumers and traders at the sight of applied mark are unlikely to see the mark to indicate the place of origin or sale when used on goods in question. Because the Board has no reason to believe the term “PUERTA DEL SOL” is known for a famous tourist square in Madrid even though Spanish dictionary and encyclopedia mention so by taking into account less familiarity to Spanish language among relevant consumers in Japan. Furthermore, there is no clue to find that the square is commonly indicated to represent a place of origin and sale in connection with the goods in question.

Criteria for Trademark Examination Guideline

Trademark Examination Guideline (TEG) pertinent to Article 3(1)(iii) provides that where a trademark is merely composed of a geographical name in foreign country or sightseeing area, the mark is deemed as “the place of origin” of goods or “the place of their sale”, provided that consumers or traders generally recognize that the designated goods will be produced or sold at the place indicated by the geographical name.

Trademark Examination Manual413.103.01 sets forth criteria to examine trademarks related to foreign geographical name.

In the cases of (a) the name of a capital, (b) the name of a state, (c) the name of a prefecture, (d) the name of a state capital, (e) the name of a province, (f) the name of the capital of a province, (g) the name of a county, (h) the name of the capital of a prefecture, (i) a former country name, (j) an old regional name, (k) the name of a district, (l) the name of a city, or special district, (m) the name of a busy downtown street, and (n) the name of a sightseeing area, even though these names may not be directly described in a dictionary or other documents/material as the place of origin, the place of sales (location of transaction) of the goods, or the location of provision of services (location of transaction), if a factor exists that establishes a connection between the goods and the name as the place of sales (location of transaction), or the location of the provision of services (location of transaction), in principle, the trademark will be refused on the grounds that it indicates the location where the goods are sold (location of transaction) or the location of provision of services (location of transaction)