POLO RALPH LAUREN vs. US POLO ASSN

The Appeal Board of the Japan Patent Office (JPO) affirmed Examiner’s refusal to register the wordmark “U.S. POLO ASSN.” due to similarity to and a likelihood of confusion with earlier registered mark “POLO” owned by The Polo/Lauren Company, L.P.
[Appeal case no. 2018-5222, Gazette issued date: July 31, 2020]

“U.S. POLO ASSN.”

United States POLO Association filed a trademark registration for wordmark “U.S. POLO ASSN.” in standard character on January 13, 2016, over various kinds of bags, leather products, and other goods in class 18. [TM application no. 2016-3277]

On January 12, 2018, the JPO Examiner rejected the applied mark in contravention of Article 4(1)(xi) and (xv) of the Japan Trademark Law on the grounds that “U.S. POLO ASSN.” contains a term “POLO” which has become famous as a source indicator of The Polo/Lauren Company, L.P in connection with clothing and home décor. Relevant consumers with ordinary care would conceive the term as a prominent portion of the applied mark. If so, both marks shall be deemed similar or likely to cause confusion when used on the goods in question.

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.

Article 4(1)(xv) is a provision to prohibit any mark from being registered where it is likely to cause confusion with other business entity’s well-known goods or services, to the benefit of brand owner and users’ benefits.

U.S. POLO ASSN filed an appeal against Examiner’s refusal on April 16, 2018.

JPO decision

JPO admitted a high degree of reputation and popularity of “POLO” as a source indicator of The Polo/Lauren Company, L.P in connection with clothing as well as bags based on following fact-findings.

  1. American company Polo Ralph Lauren was founded in 1967 in New-York by fashion designer Ralph Lauren. The 1980s and 90s saw massive expansion for the Ralph Lauren brand and it became a worldwide phenomenon.
  2. “POLO” appears with definitions of ‘trademark of US designer, Ralph Lauren’ and ‘leather products designed by Ralph Lauren’ in some dictionaries which clearly demonstrate “POLO” is known as an abbreviation of ‘POLO RALPH LAUREN’.
  3. “POLO” has been substantially used adjacent to “RAPLH LAUREN” on various goods and frequently advertised as a famous brand of RALPH LAUREN in the media.
  4. A customer survey conducted in January 2010 from 900 adults age 20 years and older revealed that RALPH LAUREN has ranked 3rd-most popular brand in clothing after Burberry and UNIQLO.
  5. Annual sales exceed USD4,800 million in 2008, USD7,450 in 2013.

The Board found the applied mark “U.S. POLO ASSN.” shall be seen as a composite mark consisting of “U.S.”, “POLO” and “ASSN.” Since the last word “ASSN.” is too unfamiliar to average Japanese consumers to see it as an abbreviation of ‘association’, the applied mark would not give rise to any specific meaning as a whole. Besides, its pronunciation ‘ˌjuː.es poʊ.loʊ eɪeɪesén’ sounds redundant. Even if the second word “POLO” means ‘a game played on horseback by two teams of four players each’, given a high reputation of the word as a source indicator or an abbreviation of ‘POLO RALPH LAUREN’ the Board can’t overlook the fact that it has the same spelling as RALPH LAUREN’s famous apparel brand.

If so, relevant consumers would consider “POLO” as a prominent portion of the applied mark and it shall be permissible to compare the portion with the cited mark in assessing similarity of mark.

In this viewpoint, the applied mark would give rise to a sound of ‘poʊ.loʊ’ and the meaning of “RALPH LAUREN’s famous apparel brand”. Therefore, the applied mark shall be deemed confusingly similar to senior registered mark “POLO” owned by The Polo/Lauren Company, L.P in class 18, and others (TM Registration no. 4040052, 4931614, and 4931615).

Based on the foregoing, the Board found that Examiner didn’t error in fact-finding nor applying Article 4(1)(xi) and (xv) of the Trademark Law and decided to refuse the applied mark accordingly.

Volkswagen Unsuccessful in Trademark Opposition to Baidu’s “Car-pollo” mark

In a trademark opposition involving the Volkswagen Polo, the Opposition Board of Japan Patent Office (JPO) decided that VW’s famous car model name “Polo” is dissimilar to, and unlikely to cause confusion with, the word mark “Car-pollo” even when used in relation to car navigation.
[Opposition Case no. 2019-900054, Gazette issued date: October 25, 2019]


Trademark opposition

German car giant Volkswagen AG filed an opposition against TM registration no. 615016 for word mark “Car-pollo” written in standard character (Opposed mark) sought for registration by Baidu Online Network Technology Beijing Company Limited, a Chinese language internet search company, on the grounds that Opposed mark shall be objectionable under Article 4(1)(xi) and 4(1)(xv) of the Japan Trademark Law based on senior trademark registrations for word mark “POLO”.

The opposed mark designates navigation apparatus (GPS) for vehicles [on-board computers]; car video recorders; batteries for vehicles; battery charging devices for motor vehicles; electric locks for vehicles and others in class 9, wheel barrows; airplanes; vessels; bicycles; electric bicycles in class 12, and automatic driving cars design in class 42.

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

Volkswagen argued opposed mark is a compound word consisting of “Car”, which would be unregistrable alone in relation to the designated goods and service, and “pollo” formed with hyphen. If so, the term “pollo” would constitute the dominant portion of opposed mark. Since the term is an unfamiliar Italian and Spanish word in Japan, relevant consumers would not conceive its meaning of ‘chicken’ at all. The term “pollo” gives rise to a same sound with “POLO” and resembles with “POLO” from appearance. Also, the designated goods in class 12 of both marks are identical or similar. Therefore, opposed mark shall be objectionable under Article 4(1)(xi).

Article 4(1)(xv) provides that a mark shall not be registered where it is likely to cause confusion with other business entity’s well-known goods or services, to the benefit of brand owner and users’ benefits.

Volkswagen argued “POLO” has acquired substantial popularity and reputation as a source indicator of VW’s famous car model name. Thus, it is highly likely that relevant traders and consumers confuse or misconceive the source of goods and services using opposed mark “Car-pollo” with opponent or a business entity systematically or economically connected with VW. If so, opposed mark shall be objectionable under Article 4(1)(xv).


Board decision

The Board admitted “POLO” has become remarkably famous for a car mode name of Volkswagen by taking into consideration of the facts that the Volkswagen Polo has been continuously imported to Japan since 1982 and ranked in the top 5 of new imported automobile registrations for the past decade.

In the meantime, the Board found “POLO” and “Car-pollo” are totally dissimilar from visual, sound and conceptual points of view. Regarding opponent’s allegation the Board stated the term “Car” isn’t a usual word to indicate ‘wheel barrows; airplanes; vessels; bicycles; electric bicycles’ of class 12. From the produced evidence, there does not exist any circumstance to admit the term “pollo” shall be conceived as a dominant portion of opposed mark in fact. If so, it looks rather appropriate to consider relevant consumers would grasp opposed mark in its entirety.

Given a lower degree of similarity between both marks and lack of originality for the term “POLO”, which means a game played on horseback between two teams, each of four players, the Board also negated a likelihood of confusion between “POLO” and “Car-pollo” even when opposed mark is used on car video recorders; batteries for vehicles; battery charging devices for motor vehicles; electric locks for vehicles, and car-related services.

Based on the foregoing, the Board dismissed opposition and allowed “Car-pollo” to survive.

POLO BCS defeated in trademark battle with POLO RALPH LAUREN

In a ruling on the merits of whether or not an applied mark “POLO HOME / BRITISH COUNTRY SPIRIT” is likely to cause confusion with a world-famous trademark “POLO” by the fashion house Ralph Lauren, the Japan IP High Court sided with the JPO and ruled in favor of Ralph Lauren on December 10, 2018.

[Court case no. H30(Gyo-ke)10067]

 

“POLO HOME / BRITISH COUNTRY SPIRIT”

POLO BCS Co., Ltd., plaintiff of the case, is a Japanese business entity, promoting apparel products bearing trademarks of “POLO BRITISH COUNTRY SPIRIT”, “POLO BCS”, and “POLO HOME”.

 

POLO BCS filed a trademark registration for the mark “POLO HOME / BRITISH COUNTRY SPIRIT” as shown in below on January 5, 2015 by designating clothing and other goods in class 25. [TM application no. 2015-305]

 

In fact, POLO BCS, a registrant of the word mark “POLO” on class 25 in Japan since 1997 (TM registration no. 1434359 and 2721189), granted trademark license to Ralph Lauren in the year of 1987 and since then continuously allows RL to use the mark “POLO” in Japan.

 

JPO decision

The Japan Patent Office (JPO) rejected the applied mark based on Article 4(1)(xv) of the Trademark Law on June 3, 2016. The refusal relies on a prominent portion of the mark “POLO” is likely to cause confusion with RALPH LAUREN when used on apparel products, being that “POLO” becomes remarkably well-known for an abbreviation of POLO RALPH LAUREN among relevant consumers with an ordinary care.

Article 4(1)(xv) is a provision to prohibit any mark from being registered where it is likely to cause confusion with other business entity’s well-known goods or services, to the benefit of brand owner and users’ benefits.

POLO BCS filed an appeal against the refusal on August 16, 2016, but its attempt resulted in failure [Appeal case no. 2016-12344].
To contest the JPO decision, POLO BCS appealed to the IP High Court filed immediately.

 

IP High Court decision

The court admitted a high degree of reputation and popularity of Ralph Lauren and “POLO” as an abbreviation of Polo Ralph Lauren in connection with apparel products by taking account of following fact findings.

  1. The first collection for Polo brand was launched in the US by a designer Mr. Ralph Lauren in 1967.
  2. Annual sales of Ralph Lauren exceed 7 billion USD in 2013 around the globe.
  3. In 1976, Ralph Lauren launched Polo brand and shops in Japan.
  4. According to brand perception survey of 900 randomly selected Japanese consumers ages 20 to 69 conducted in 2010, 81.8% of consumers recognize Ralph Lauren.
  5. Annual sales of 26.7 billion JPY in Japan (fiscal year 2008) accounts for 6% of global sales of Ralph Lauren.

 

Besides, the court found close similarity between applied mark and “POLO” by Ralph Lauren given a tiny font size of “BRITISH COUNTRY SPIRIT” in the configuration of applied mark and less distinctiveness of the word “HOME” in relation to apparel for home use.

Plaintiff argued to consider the fact that RL has used the “POLO” mark in Japan under license from plaintiff. But the court negated the argument stating that such fact would not mean consumers recognize the mark as a source indicator of plaintiff. In addition, plaintiff argued originality and fame of the word “POLO” as a source indicator of Ralph Lauren by citing Polo Game, organizations for the game, e.g. US POLO ASSOCIATION, HURLINGHAM POLO, and a generic name of Polo shirts. Court considered such circumstances would mean less originality of the mark “POLO”, but never deny fame of the mark as a source indicator of Ralph Lauren as long as consumers doubtlessly connect it with Ralph Lauren.

Based on the foregoing, the IP High Court concluded it is obvious that relevant consumers are likely to confuse or misconceive a source of the applied mark with Ralph Lauren or any entity systematically or economically connected with RL when used on clothing in class 25.