Tragic End of Trademark Challenge for Louboutin

In a series of Louboutin’s legal challenge to claim exclusive right over red soles, the Japan IP High Court, on the heels of the dismissal of Louboutin’s infringement claim on December 26, 2022, affirmed the JPO rejection to TM Application no. 2015-29921 for a red colored mark in sole and ruled Louboutin’s red soles shall be unregistrable under the Trademark Law on January 30, 2023.

[Court case no. Reiwa 4(Gyo-ke)10089]

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).

JPO Rejection

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

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.

Louboutin brought the case to the IP High Court and appealed to cancel the JPO decision.

IP High Court decision

In the decision, the IP High Court expressed a view that a trademark consisting of a single color shall not be registrable unless it has acquired an extremely high degree of recognition to indicate a specific source as a result of substantial use to the extent that exclusive use of the color would not cause detrimental effect to the public in general.

In this respect, the court affirmed the JPO findings that a lot of heels with red-colored soles have been distributed by other shoemakers in Japan for years and negated the inherent distinctiveness of the red-colored mark.

In the assessment of acquired distinctiveness, the court found the survey that demonstrated 51.6% of the interviewees (3,149 females, aged from 20 to 50) having a domicile in three big cities (Tokyo, Osaka, or Nagoya) was insufficient to find acquired distinctiveness of the red soles among relevant consumers, assuming that the percentage would become lower if the survey targets more females residing in other cities nationwide.

Even if Louboutin’s red soles have become famous among consumers who have a high interest in luxury brands, the Court has no reason to believe that the red colored mark has acquired an extremely high degree of recognition as a source indicator to the extent that general public would tolerate its exclusive use on soles.

Based on the foregoing, the IP High Court affirmed the JPO decision and dismissed entire allegations by Louboutin.

Consequently, Louboutin’s legal challenge was decisively blown off by two IP High Court rulings unless the Supreme Court holds out its hand on Louboutin.

IP High Court Rules Lego 3D Figure Mark Unregistrable

The Japan IP High Court dismissed an appeal brought by Lego Juris A/S and affirmed the Japan Patent Office (JPO) decision that found the 3D shape of Lego figures unregistrable due to a lack of inherent distinctiveness and secondary meaning in relation to toys.

[Court case no. Reiwa4(Gyo-ke)10050, decision date: December 26, 2022]

LEGO 3D Figure Mark

Toy giant, Lego Juris A/S applied to register a 3D mark, showing the Lego figure seen from the front, side, back, top, and beneath (see below), for “games and playthings” and other goods in class 28 on October 20, 2017 (TM App no. 2017-138422).

JPO rejection

The JPO Appeal Board sustained the findings of the examiner and found the 3D mark does not go beyond the scope of the descriptive shape of the goods in question by stating that:

  1. Plenty of human shapes figures have been promoted for sale by competitors in the relevant business field.
  2. There is less necessity to adopt a specific configuration in making a human shape figure provided that it has a basic skeleton of head, body, arms, and legs.
  3. The Board has a reason to believe the 3D shape of the applied mark is adopted enabling (i) to wear several caps and hair wigs, (ii) to get hold of various tools at hand, and (iii) to stand still in the display, and play.
  4. If so, relevant consumers would assume the whole shape and its unique decoration of the Lego figure attributable to enhancing function or the aesthetic appeal of the toy.

Based on the foregoing, on January 6, 2022, the Board decided to dismiss the appeal in contravention of Article 3(1)(iii) of the Japan Trademark Law. See a previous post from here.

Lego Juris A/S immediately brought the case to the IP High Court and argued inherent distinctiveness and secondary meaning as a result of the substantial use of the 3D shape in relation to toys.

IP High Court ruling

By judgment of December 26, 2022, the IP High Court found relevant consumers are likely to consider the 3D shape as a whole adopted for a purpose of enhancing function or the aesthetic appeal of ‘human figure toys’ by taking into account a lot of human shape figures with similar features by competitors and trade practice.

The judge stated JPO did not error in applying Article 3(1)(iii) of the Japan Trademark Law and the 3D mark shall be unregistrable due to a lack of inherent distinctiveness under the article.

As for Lego’s allegations of the secondary meaning, the judge, based on the produced evidence, pointed out that relevant consumers would just consider the 3D mark as an unfinished shape of Lego figures because there is a number of figures wearing caps and hair wigs with different facial expressions.

In order to bolster secondary meaning, Lego produced an interview report, showing 37.32% of the interviewees (a total of 1,190 people aged over 16) selected “Lego” from a list. However, the judge thought it negatively by paying an attention to the fact that more interviewees (amounting to 37.45%) selected other brands from the list.

Accordingly, the court decided the 3D mark is even unregistrable under Article 3(2) because it has yet to acquire secondary meaning as a source indicator of Lego figures.

“OLYMPIAD vs OLYMBEER” trademark battle

The Japan IP High Court reversed a decision of the JPO that canceled the OLYMBEER mark due to its similarity to “OLYMPIAD” in contravention of Article 4(1)(vi) of the Trademark Law.

[Court case no. Reiwa4(Gyo-ke)10067, Judgment date: December 26, 2022]


SJP & Co., a Japanese company, filed a trademark application for the wordmark “OLYMBEER” with its transliteration written in Japanese Katakana character (see below) for use on beers, refreshing beverages, fruit juices, vegetable juices, extracts of hops for making beer, whey beverage in class 32 with the JPO on October 28, 2019, ahead of the opening of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games.

The JPO examiner did not raise any objection to the OLYMBEER mark and granted protection on November 16, 2020 (TM Reg no. 6323630). Subsequently, the mark was published for opposition on December 22, 2020.

Opposition by IOC

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) filed an opposition against the OLYMBEER mark on February 22, 2021, before the lapse of a two-month statutory period counting from the publication date and claimed the OLYMBEER mark shall be canceled in contravention of Article 4(1)(vii), (xi) and (xv) of the Japan Trademark Law by citing “OLYMPIC” and “OLYMPIAN” mark.

In the course of trial proceedings, the JPO notified at their discretion that the opposed mark shall be canceled in contravention of Article 4(1)(vi) due to a similarity to “OLYMPIAD” which has become famous to represent the modern Olympic Games.

Article 4(1)(vi)  

The article is a provision to prohibit registration of any mark that 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 the public interest, or a non-profit business for the public interest.

The Trademark Examination Guidelines (TEG) specify “IOC”, and “Olympic” shall be protectable under the article.

Consequently, the JPO decided to cancel the opposed mark based on Article 4(1)(vi) irrespective of no reference to the article by the IOC.

SJP & Co. brought the case to the IP High Court and argued that “OLYMPIAD” would not be such a famous mark as opposed to “Olympic” and the opposed mark is dissimilar to “OLYMPIAD” in its entirety from appearance, sound, and meaning.

IP High Court ruling

The IP High Court questioned if “OLYMPIAD” has become famous among relevant consumers and traders in relation to the goods in question from the produced evidence. If so, it is inadequate to assess the similarity of marks on the assumption that “OLYMPIAD” has acquired a substantial reputation.

The judge said in the decision a mere coincidence of “OLYM” is insufficient to find the similarity between “OLYMBEER” and “OLYMPIAD”. The judge stated that there is no reason to believe both marks are visually, phonetically, and conceptually similar when compared as a whole.

Based on the foregoing, the court found the JPO erred in applying Article 4(1)(vi) of the Trademark Law by wrongly finding the similarity of mark between “OLYMBEER” and “OLYMPIAD”, and thus the court ruled to reverse the JPO decision.

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.

Japan IP High Court Ruling: “Designed, Quality-controlled in France” is not equivalent to “Made in France”

On March 22, 2022, in an appeal against the non-use cancellation decision by the Japan Patent Office (JPO), the Japan IP High Court affirmed the JPO’s decision and ruled it is not construed that a disputed mark “I R O PARIS” has been used on its designated goods with a limitation of the origin ‘All made in France’ because the term is not equivalent to ‘designed, or quality-controlled in France’.

Disputed mark “I R O PARIS”

A French fashion house, IRO has registered a wordmark “I R O PARIS” on various goods e.g., jewelry, watches, leather, bags, umbrella, wallets, clothing, shoes, sports shoes, headgear in classes 14, 18, and 25 with a limitation of the origin ‘all made in France’ in 2013 (TM Reg No. 5623868).

Non-Use Cancellation

Article 50 of the Japan Trademark Law provides if a trademark registered in Japan has never been used in commerce in Japan for three consecutive years or longer after registration, the trademark is vulnerable to cancellation provided that third parties file a petition for cancellation of the trademark registration.

iROO International Co., Ltd., a Taiwanese company, filed a petition for non-use cancellation against the disputed mark on every goods of three classes on October 4, 2019.

In the cancellation action, the registrant produced evidence (order form, invoice, magazines) to demonstrate the actual use of the mark “IRO” and “” on skirts, belts, and dresses in Japan. The JPO admitted these marks are equivalent to the registered mark “I R O PARIS”. However, the JPO found the goods bearing the mark are not “made in France”, but “made in China”. If so, the disputed mark has not been precisely used on designated goods. Because of it, the Cancellation Board decided to cancel the disputed mark in whole on March 24, 2021.

IRO filed an appeal against the JPO decision on July 29, 2021, and argued the mark “IRO” has been used on goods designed by employees working at the head office in Paris (France). The head office has exclusive authority to control the quality of every item, namely, selecting suitable materials, producing samples made of materials available in Paris, securing the quality of goods made by suppliers, and storing finished goods in a warehouse in Paris before delivery. In view of actual commitment to quality control of final goods made by suppliers and common industry practice in the apparel, the goods shall be construed ‘made in France’ even if it was manufactured by an overseas supplier.

IP High Court decision

The court found the JPO did not err in fact-findings. In fact, the goods bearing the mark “IRO” were manufactured by suppliers having a place of business out of France. On the plaintiff’s website “IRO FALL WINTER 21 COLLECTION”, it mentions the product was made in China.

The disputed mark designates ‘clothing made in France’. It shall be construed the clothing was made in the territory of France. If so, the clothing made out of France would never be deemed identical to the designated goods.

The court has no reason to believe “designed, quality-controlled in France” is equivalent to ‘made in France’ in the literal interpretation of Article 50 of the Japan Trademark Law.

Based on the foregoing, the IP High Court dismissed the appeal and affirmed the cancellation decision.

[Judicial case no. Reiwa 3(Gyo-ke)10087]

This case teaches how important for brand owners to keep designated goods consistent with the actual business. It often happens that the goods bearing a mark containing GI are made in other countries or regions as a matter of fact. Such inconsistency may result in non-use cancellation if the designated goods limit the origin.

As an experienced trademark practitioner, I never fail to confirm the relation between goods and GI when a mark contains GI. In case a brand owner does not manufacture in the area, it is advisable to limit goods by placing more adequate terms, such as ‘designed by (area), derived from (area), using material from (area).’ Otherwise, you may lose your trademark registration in Japan as a result of non-use cancellation.

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, 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.


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.

Japan IP High Court ruled “AZURE” is unregistrable due to “AZULE”

On December 23, 2020, the Japan IP High Court affirmed a decision of the Japan Patent Office (JPO) finding that the “AZURE” mark is similar to senior trademark registration no. 5454302 for word mark “AZULE” in connection with medical services of class 44.
[Judicial case no. Reiwa 2(Gyo-ke)10086]


A disputed mark is a wordmark “AZURE” in standard character. The mark filed by Willfarm Co., Ltd., a Japanese merchant on November 22, 2017, over cosmetics (cl. 3), pharmaceutical preparations, dietary supplements (cl. 5), retail or wholesale services for these goods (cl. 35), beauty salon, massage, providing medical information, health clinic services, rental of medical equipment, nutritional and dietetic consultancy, nursing home services (cl. 44). [TM application no. 2017-153742]

JPO decision

Initially, the JPO examiner refused the mark in contravention of Article 4(1)(xi) of the Trademark Law by citing senior trademark registration no. 5454302 for word mark “AZULE” written in standard character. Among other things, the designated service of ‘providing medical information, health clinic services, rental of medical equipment’ in class 44 is deemed identical with that of the citation.

Article 4(1)(xi) is a provision to prohibit registering a junior mark that is identical with, or similar to, any senior registered mark.

There is a criterion that the examiner is checking when assessing the similarity between the marks:

  • visual similarity
  • aural similarity
  • conceptual similarity

and taking into account all these three aspects examiner makes a decision if a mark is similar (at least to some extent) to the earlier mark and if there is a likelihood of confusion for the consumers.

The applicant sought to file an appeal against the examiner’s rejection and argued dissimilarity of both marks, however, the Appeal Board upheld the rejection for the same reason on June 8, 2020. [Appeal case no. 2020-1707]

To contest the administrative decision, the applicant filed a lawsuit to the IP Hight Court on July 21, 2020.

IP High Court ruling

In the lawsuit, the plaintiff argued the Board inappropriately found the “AZURE” mark would give rise to pronunciations of ‘æʒə’ and ‘a-zhə-reˈ, but it is precisely pronounced as ‘æʒə’ or ‘a-jü(ə)l’. Besides, the Board erroneously held “AZURE” is similar to “AZULE” in appearance. By virtue of the difference in the fourth letter “R” and “L”, relevant consumers of the medical services in question would easily distinguish them. If so, by taking account of slight conceptual association between the marks, the “AZURE” mark shall be considered dissimilar to “AZULE” from visual, aural, and conceptual points of view.

The Court upheld the Board decision by stating that relevant consumers at the sight of the disputed mark would pronounce the term “AZURE” as ‘æʒə’ or ‘a-zhə-reˈ since it is not a familiar foreign word among the general public in Japan. The cited mark “AZULE” also gives rise to a pronunciation of ‘a-zhə-leˈ. Therefore, both pronunciations are confusingly similar.

As for appearance, the court denied the plaintiff’s argument on the ground that the medical services in question are consumed not only by health care workers but also by the general public. As long as both terms are unfamiliar to the relevant consumers, a mere difference of one letter would be anything but sufficient for them to distinguish both marks.

Based on the foregoing, the Court dismissed the allegations entirely and ruled to reject the “AZURE” mark in contravention of Article 4(1)(xi).

To read a full text of the IP High Court decision (Japanese only), click here.

Hermès beat Birkin Bag Imitator for Trademark Infringement

On December 17, 2020, the Japan IP High Court upheld awards for JPY2,900,000 for damages suffered by Hermès in relation to a trademark infringement and passing-off case regarding the Birkin Bag imitations.
[Court case no. Reiwa2(Ne)10040]

Hermès Birkin Bag

HERMES INTERNATIONAL, a French luxury fashion house, has owned Japanese trademark registration no. 5438059 for the 3D shape of the “Birkin” bag in connection with handbags of class 25 since 2011 by successfully demonstrating acquired secondary meaning as a specific source indicator of Hermès’ luxury bags.

The iconic Birkin bag was firstly created for Jane Birkin in 1984. It is known for its superior craftsmanship and jaw-dropping price tag, with standard models starting around JPY1,000,000. Its annual sales figures exceed 3,000 in 1998, 8,000 in 2003, and 17,000 in 2009.

Birkin Bag Imitations

Hermes sued Kabushiki Kaisha Tia Maria at the Tokyo District Court for violating its trademark right and the unfair competition prevention law by allegedly promoting 100 or more Birkin look-alike bags (see below) in Japan with a price tag of JPY27,300 from August 2010 to February 2018.

Court decision

On June 3, 2020, the Tokyo District Court decided in favor of HERMES INTERNATIONAL and awarded damages for trademark infringement and passing-off in the amount of JPY2,900,000.
[court case no. Heisei31(wa)9997]

In the decision, the Tokyo District Court found that Hermès Birkin Bag has acquired distinctiveness and become remarkably famous as a source indicator of Hermès’ luxury bags by 2009.

Besides, the court held that defendant’s goods constitutes an infringement of the 3D shape of the “Birkin” bag trademark since both are confusingly similar in view of the following aspects:
(a) a distinctive three-lobed flap design with keyhole-shaped notches to fit around the base of the handle, (b) a dimpled triangular profile, (c) a closure which consists of two thin, horizontal straps designed to fit over the flap, with metal plates at their end that fit over a circular turn lock, (d) a padlock which fits through the center eye of the turn lock and (e), typically, a key fob affixed to a leather strap, one end of which is affixed to the bag by wrapping around the base of one end of the handle.

Screen capture of TIA MARIA’s website (

The court measured damages to recover (i) defendant’s actual sales of infringing bags (JPY2,730,780) by subtracting appropriate variable cost (40% of the offered price) for JPY1,638,468, (ii) “mental suffering” caused by an infringement for JPY1,000,000, and (iii) reasonable attorney fee for JPY260,000.

The district court decision was challenged by the defendant before the High Court to set aside or vary it, however, the IP High Court dismissed the appeal entirely and sided with HERMES INTERNATIONAL.

To read a full text of the IP High Court decision (Japanese only), click here.

Starbucks defeated in trademark battle to defend the logo

On September 16, 2020, the Japan IP High Court dismissed an appeal by the American multinational coffee house chain, Starbucks Corporation, challenging the unfavorable decision made by the Japan Patent Office (JPO) that did not find a likelihood of confusion with the previous Starbucks logo. [Court case no. Reiwa1(Gyo-ke)10170]


Starbucks has been eagerly struggling to invalidate trademark registration for BULL PULU TAPIOKA logo (see below) because it contains a green circular frame with white lettering inside.

Disputed mark was applied for registration over tapioca-based milk products in class 29, tapioca-flavored coffee, cocoa, confectionery; tapioca powder for foods in class 30, and restaurant service in class 43 on March 9, 2016, by a Japanese Company who operates tapioca drink parlors bearing the disputed mark in Japan. JPO registered the mark on December 9, 2016.

Invalidation action to JPO

On September 15, 2017, Starbucks Corporation filed a petition for invalidation and alleged among others the disputed mark shall be invalidated in contravention of Article 4(1)(xi) and (xv) of the Trademark Law due to similarity to, or a likelihood of confusion with senior trademark registration no. 4806987 for the previous Starbucks logo.

The third version of the Starbucks logo design, used from 1992 to 2010, consists of a black and white two-tailed siren wearing a starred crown and framed around a green circle in which the words “Starbucks Coffee” are written.

The JPO Invalidation Board questioned given five years have already passed since Starbucks redesigned its iconic emblem to the new logo whether the previous logo has continuously retained a substantial degree of reputation and popularity in Japan at the time of filing the disputed mark. Besides, the Board did see both marks are totally dissimilar and the configuration of a green circular frame with white lettering inside per se would never be known for a source indicator of Starbucks. If so, the Board found that relevant consumers are unlikely to confuse the source of goods and services in question bearing the disputed mark with Starbucks and decided to dismiss the invalidation action on August 21, 2019. [Invalidation case no. 2017-890065]

On December 19, 2019, Starbucks brought the case to the IP High Court and demanded the cancellation of the JPO decision.

IP High Court ruling

Starbucks argued the JPO erred in finding a likelihood of confusion based on the interview report which indicated more than 70% of the interviewees (total of 552 people ranging in age from 20 to 69) associated the following image of a green circular frame with white lettering inside with Starbucks.

The IP High Court held the previous logo has become remarkably famous as a source indicator of Starbucks in 2011 when it was replaced with the new logo. The Court also found the portion of a green circular frame with white lettering inside shall be impressive to consumers at the sight of the previous Starbucks logo. However, the court raised the same question if relevant consumers conceive Starbucks even when different words other than “STARBUCKS” and “COFFEE” appear inside the frame. If so, there is no reasonable ground to believe a mere image of a green circular frame with white lettering inside has played a significant role in the source indicator of Starbucks by taking account of the fact that the disputed mark was filed four years after the redesign to the new logo.

As for the interview report, the court strictly viewed that the image was not precisely identical to the previous Starbucks logo. It just focused on extracting the generic concept of the frame with lettering. In addition, interviewees were notified in advance that the image originally contained a design in the center and words to represent a company inside the frame. Such information shall be misleading and biased. If so, the report would be anything but appropriate and relevant to assess the high recognition of the frame as well as a likelihood of confusion on the case.

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

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.