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 “www.iroparis.com” 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

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.

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]

AZURE

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 (http://tiamaria.zf.shopserve.jp/SHOP/V1172S.html)

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]

BULL PULU TAPIOCA LOGO

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.

Fashion Designer Lost Trademark Dispute Over His Name

On July 29, 2020, the Japan IP High Court ruled to dismiss an appeal by Kabushiki Kaisha Soloist, founded by Takahiro Miyashita, a Japanese fashion designer, who contested a decision by the Japan Patent Office (JPO) to deny trademark registration for a compound mark consisting of “TAKAHIROMIYASHITA” and “TheSoloist.” under Article 4(1)(viii) of the Trademark Law.
[Judicial case no. Reiwa2(Gyo-ke)10006]

TAKAHIROMIYASHITATheSoloist.

Disputed mark (see below) was filed by Kabushiki Kaisha Soloist, founded by Takahiro Miyashita, on September 21, 2017, covering various fashion items in class 14, 18, and 25. [TM application no. 2017-126259]

In 2010, immediately after starting a company ‘Kabushiki Kaisha Soloist’, Takahiro Miyashita allegedly has launched his new brand “TAKAHIROMIYASHITATheSoloist.” and used the disputed mark on clothing, sandals, sunglass, eyewear, accessories designed by him since then and the disputed mark has become famous for his fashion brand. Consequently, relevant consumers and traders would not associate the disputed mark with any individual other than him.

Refusal decision by JPO

The Japan Patent Office (JPO) refused the mark in contravention of Article 4(1)(viii) of the Trademark Law, on the ground that the disputed mark contains a full name of private individual named “Takahiro Miyashita”. It is obvious that there are several Japanese people with the same name.

Article 4(1)(viii)

Article 4(1)(viii) of the Trademark Law prohibits registration of trademarks which contain the representation or name of any person, famous pseudonym, professional name or pen name of another person, or famous abbreviation thereof for the purpose of protecting personal rights of a living individual. Notwithstanding the provision, the article is not applicable where the applicant of the disputed mark produces the written consent of the person.

The Supreme Court of Japan has ruled the article shall be interpreted to protect the personal rights of a living individual. In line with the Supreme Court ruling, Trademark Examination Manuals (TEM) set forth that the article is applicable not only to natural persons (including foreigners) and corporations but also associations without capacity.

On January 29, 2019, the Appeal Board of JPO decided to affirm the examiner’s refusal on the same ground. [Appeal case no. 2019-1138]

To contest the administrative decision, the applicant filed an appeal to the IP High Court.

IP High Court Ruling

The court dismissed the allegation entirely, by stating that:

  1. Even though the disputed mark contains literal elements unrelated to the name of a living person, Article 4(1)(viii) is still applicable since relevant consumers would conceive the literal portions of “TAKAHIROMIYASHITA” as a name of a Japanese person.
  2. It is indisputable that there are several Japanese with the same name as Takahiro Miyashita and some of their names are written in different Chinese characters.
  3. The applicant failed to prove that he obtained consent from them.
  4. Alleged facts that the founder of the applicant has become famous as a fashion designer and because of it, relevant consumers and traders are unlikely to connect the disputed mark with any individual other than the designer would be construed irrelevant in applying Article 4(1)(viii).

Based on the foregoing, the IP High Court sided with the JPO and upheld the refusal decision.

Click here to see the Court’s official ruling (Japanese only)

Is “MAHARAJA” a generic term in relation to Indian restaurants?

On July 8, 2020, the Japan IP High Court affirmed the JPO’s rejection in a trademark dispute over the “MAHARAJA” mark for Indian restaurant services in class 43. [Judicial case no. Reiwa2(Gyo-ke)10022]

Disputed mark

The disputed mark prominently consists of “Maharaja” with stylization in red (see below).

The mark was filed by MAHARAJA.CO., LTD, on December 25, 2017, designating the services of providing Indian cuisine; providing alcoholic beverages, tea, coffee, or juices; providing hotel accommodation in class 43 [TM application no. 2017-168406].

The applicant allegedly opened the first “Maharaja” Indian restaurant at Shinjuku (Tokyo) in 1968 and now operates the “Maharaja” restaurants at some places in Japan.

JPO decision

The Japan Patent Office (JPO) rejected the disputed mark in contravention of Article 4(1)(xi) of the Japan Trademark Law by citing the following senior registrations.

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

The JPO found that the stylized “Maharaja” term, due to its position, larger font, and color, dominates the perception of the disputed mark. If so, the disputed mark obviously gives rise to the same sound and meaning with the Citations. “MAHARAJA” means the head of one of the royal families that used to rule parts of India (Collins English Dictionary). Because of a high degree of phonetic and conceptual similarity, the mere difference in appearance is not sufficient to neutralize the similarity.

Besides, it is unquestionable that the disputed mark designates identical or similar services with the Citations.

For the reader’s reference, I had better explain that the Citations are respectively co-existing on similar services of providing Indian cuisine; providing alcoholic beverages in the same class. It is because these were filed just after the implementation of Servicemark in 1992 and the Trademark Law exceptionally secured for registration to protect the existing business status even if similar marks are filed by other entities on the condition that business owners apply for registration within a statutory period for the implementation.

To contest the JPO decision [Appeal case no. 2019-4961], the applicant appealed to the IP High Court on February 19, 2020.

IP High Court ruling

Applicant argued that since “MAHARAJA” has become a generic term in relation to Indian restaurant services, relevant consumers would find the appearance of the “MAHARAJA” mark rather than sound and meaning as a material clue to distinguish such restaurants. To bolster the argument, the applicant referred to the fact that 14 (fourteen) restaurants managed by an entity other than the applicant provide Indian foods using tradename “MAHARAJA” in Japan.

Given relevant consumers are accustomed to seeing the term “MAHARAJA” in close connection with Indian foods, it would likely be a generic term in relation to the service in question. If so, the aural and conceptual elements of generic term shall not be taken into consideration in assessing the similarity of the mark. The JPO errored in finding the background of the case appropriately.

The court, however, did deny the applicant’s allegation, stating that the on-line database of NTT telephone directory (town page) shows 2162 Indian restaurants exist in Japan as of 2017. It means more than 2,100 Indian restaurants use a tradename other than “MAHARAJA”. Under the circumstances, the court would not find a reasonable reason to believe “MAHARAJA” has become a generic term in relation to the service.

Even though there are plenty of Indian restaurants under the tradename of “MAHARAJA” in Japan as the applicant argues, the court would not be convinced if relevant consumers distinguish such restaurants simply by means of the visual elements of a mark (tradename). Because the court finds it commercial practice for shop owners to modify the font and color of mark (tradename) depending on its place and venue.

Based on the foregoing, the court decided that the JPO did not error in finding similarity of the mark and dismissed the appeal entirely.

Japan IP High Court ruling: “I♡JAPAN” lacks distinctiveness as a trademark

On June 17, 2020, the Japan IP High Court affirmed the JPO’s rejection of the “I♡JAPAN” mark in relation to various goods of class 14,16,18 and 24 due to a lack of distinctiveness.
[Judicial case no. Reiwa 1(Gyo-ke)10164]

I♡JAPAN

The disputed mark consists of the capital letter “I”, followed by a red heart symbol, below which are the capital letters “JAPAN” (see below). The mark filed by CREWZ COMPANY, a Japanese merchant on April 17, 2018, over various goods in class 14, 16, 18, and 24 [TM application no. 2018-049161].

Noticeably, the JPO already allowed trademark registration for the same mark on apparels in class 25 on March 27, 2015, filed by the applicant [TM Registration no. 5752985]. Regardless of it, the examiner refused disputed mark in contravention of Article 3(1)(vi) of the Trademark Law.

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.

JPO decision

The JPO Appeal Board sustained the examiner’s refusal and decided to reject disputed mark by stating that we are nowadays accustomed to finding goods bearing the “I♡” logo followed by a geographical indication, which represents a strong devotion or attachment to the area/city in its entirety. In fact, the “I♡JAPAN” design is commonly used on several goods as a symbol to support the Japanese sports team or souvenirs for tourists. If so, the design shall not be exclusively occupied by a specific entity. Under the circumstances, relevant consumers are unlikely to conceive the disputed mark as a source indicator of the applicant. Thus, the mark shall be rejected in contravention of Article 3(1)(vi) and the examiner did not error. [Appeal case no. 2018-16957]

To contend against the decision, the applicant filed an appeal to the IP High Court.

IP High Court ruling

The IP High Court dismissed the applicant’s allegation entirely, stating that the disputed mark gives rise to the meaning of “I love JAPAN”. The court found the “I♡” logo followed by a geographical indication is commonly used to appeal a strong devotion or attachment to the area/city. Inter alia, various merchants promote goods bearing the “I♡JAPAN” design as a sign of their support to Japan or the Japanese sports team. If so, relevant consumers and traders would not conceive disputed mark as a source indicator of goods in question, but merely a symbol to represent their devotion and support to Japan. Therefore, the disputed mark shall not be registrable under n contravention of Article 3(1)(vi).

Besides, the court found the fact of a precedent registration for the same mark in a different class would not affect the distinctiveness of disputed mark since it does not have a legal effect to bind subsequent examination in assessing registrability of a junior mark under Article 3(1)(vi).

Japan IP High Court sided with Apple Inc. in “CORE ML” trademark dispute

On May 20, 2020, the Japan IP High Court denied the JPO decision and sided with Apple Inc. by finding the “CORE ML” mark is dissimilar to senior trademark registration no. 5611369 for word mark “CORE” in connection with computer software of class 9.
[Case no. Reiwa1(Gyo-ke)10151]

CORE ML

Apple Inc. filed a trademark application for word mark “CORE ML” in standard character by designating computer software in class 9 on November 6, 2017 (TM App no. 2017-145606).

Apple’s Core ML is its own framework for Machine Learning used across Apple products for performing fast prediction or inference with easy integration of pre-trained machine learning models on the edge, which allows you to perform real-time predictions of live images or video on the device.

JPO decision

The Japan Patent Office (JPO) rejected “CORE ML” in contravention of Article 4(1)(xi) of the Trademark Law due to a conflict with senior trademark registration no. 5611369 for word mark “CORE” in standard character over electronic machines, computer software, and other goods in class 9 owned by Seiko Holdings Corporation.

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

In the decision, the JPO stated applied mark apparently consists of two words, “CORE” and “ML”. The term “CORE”, a familiar English word meaning ‘a central and foundational part’, would play a role of source indicator in connection with the goods in question. In the meantime, “ML” is a descriptive term since it is commonly used as an abbreviation of ‘Machine Learning’ in the computer software industry. If so, it is permissible to select the term “CORE” as a dominant portion of applied mark and compare it with the cited mark “CORE”.

To contend against the decision, Apple Inc. filed an appeal to the IP High Court.

IP High Court ruling

The IP High Court, at the outset, referred to the Supreme Court ruling in 2008 which established the criterion to grasp a composite mark in its entirety in the assessment of similarity of the mark.

“Where a mark in dispute is recognized as a composite mark consisting of two elements or more, it is not permissible to assess the similarity of mark simply by means of taking out an element of the composite mark and then comparing such element with the other mark, unless consumers or traders are likely to perceive the element as a dominant portion indicating its source of origin of goods/service, or remaining elements truly lack inherent distinctiveness as a source indicator in view of sound and concept.”

Based on the criteria, the court found that applied mark shall be assessed in its entirety on the following grounds:

  1. “CORE” would be merely recognized as a term to mean ‘a central and foundational part’ in connection with goods in question.
  2. It is unlikely that relevant consumers at the sight of “CORE ML” used on computer software conceive the term “ML” as an abbreviation of ‘machine learning’. If so, “ML” would not give rise to any specific meaning.
  3. The above facts suggest that “CORE” would never play a dominant role and “ML” shall not be considered less distinctive than “CORE” as a source indicator in view of the concept.
  4. From appearance and sound, there is no reasonable ground to believe “CORE” and “ML” shall be recognized individual and separable.

Based on the foregoing, the court pointed out the JPO erred in finding applied mark appropriately and decided that the applied mark “CORE ML” is deemed dissimilar to the cited mark “CORE” as a whole given the remarkable difference in sound and appearance, even if both marks resemble in concept.