Court Case: Parallel imports of trademarked goods in Japan

In a trademark dispute pertinent to parallel imports, on October 22, 2020, the Japan Tokyo District Court allowed the parallel import of “2UNDR” men’s underwear from Singapore into Japan.
[Court case no. Heisei30(Wa)35053]

2UNDR

Harris Williams Design Inc. (Harris), a Canadian corporation, is an owner of Japanese Trademark Registration no. 5696029 for the mark “2UNDR” over men’s underwear, clothing, and others in class 25 as well as Canadian Trademark Registration for the same mark, jointly with EYE IN THE SKY CO, Ltd., an exclusive distributor and licensee in Japan, sued Kabushiki Kaisha Bright, a Japanese company who imported and distributed 2,387 pcs of men’s underwear bearing the “2UNDR” mark as follows in Japan, for trademark infringement.

Defendant argued the goods in dispute were all purchased from a Singapore company M-Golf which was originally imported to Singapore under the license of another Canadian corporation owned by the CEO of Harris. If so, the import of the 2UNDR goods in Japan would not constitute trademark infringement and it is not prohibited the defendant from selling such goods in Japan as a parallel importer.

Parallel imports

Parallel imports involve the import and distribution of genuine trademarked goods by parties other than the trademark owner or their agent. In contrast to counterfeit products, products that are the subject of parallel imports were produced abroad with the consent of the trademark owner.

The plaintiffs contended the defendant’s act would be anything but permissible since M-Golf has been restricted under trademark license to export the licensed goods out of Singapore. Besides, when the defendant purchased the disputed goods, M-Golf was no longer an authorized distributor in Singapore. Therefore, defendant goods would never be construed the genuine products as a matter of law.

Supreme Court Ruling

In the “Fred Perry Case” decision ruled on February 27, 2003, the Japan Supreme Court established the criteria to determine whether parallel imports shall constitute trademark infringements, by relying on ‘functional theory’:

  1. Is the trademark affixed on the goods, which the alleged infringer wishes to import, by the trademark owner or with its consent in the country of export?
  2. Is the party who owns trademark right in the country of export also an owner of Japanese trademark right for the same mark or closely associated with the owner so that the trademark affixed in the country of export could indicate the same source with a registered mark in Japan?
  3. Is the owner of Japanese trademark right, directly or indirectly, effectively in control of the quality of imported goods with the trademark which is sought to be enforced so that the imported goods would be estimated virtually identical in view of quality with the goods placed on the market under the same trademark by the owner in Japan?

Given the answer to the above three tests is yes, the essential function of a trademark, namely “source indicator” and “quality assurance”, would not be harmed by virtue of parallel imports in fact. In this respect, parallel imports shall be permissible even if the defendant’s act nominally constitutes trademark infringement.

Tokyo District Court Decision

In line with the criteria, the Tokyo District Court found that answer to the first test is “yes” because the 2UNDR mark was originally affixed on the disputed goods under a license of Harris in Canada. The territorial restriction imposed on a licensee and termination of license agreement would be irrelevant to the test.

Unquestionably, the answer to the second test is “yes” since Harris is the sole owner of Japanese trademark registration and Canadian trademark registration for the 2UNDR mark. If so, both marks indicate the same source of origin as a matter of course.

As for the third test, the court could not find a reasonable ground to believe that territorial restriction is beneficial to assure the quality of men’s underwear by taking into consideration such goods would neither easily decline quality nor damage during shipment. Besides, there seems no difference in quality between the defendant’s imported goods and the plaintiff’s 2UNDR goods distributed in Japan. Therefore, the court held the case satisfies the third test as well.

Based on the foregoing, the court decided the defendant’s act to import and distribute the disputed goods in Japan would not adversely affect the essential function of the 2UNDR mark owned by plaintiffs and thus permissible as parallel imports under the Trademark Law.

Click here to read the full decision

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