Is Mr. Benjamin Brown around?

The Japan Patent Office (JPO) reversed the examiner’s rejection to TM App no. 2022-13396 for word mark “Benjamin Brown” in classes 25 and 28 based on Article 4(1)(viii) of the Trademark Law by stating the mark would not be completely identical with a full name of the person “Benjamin Brown” alive.

[Appeal case no. 2023-4642, decided on November 9, 2023]

Benjamin Brown

Japanese company, Kabushiki Kaisha Pmang, filed trademark application for a word mark “Benjamin Brown” for use on various goods in class 25 and 28, especially golf wear, shoes and other gold items, with the JPO on February 7, 2022.

On December 19, 2022, the JPO examiner rejected the mark in contravention of Article 4(1)(viii) of the Japan Trademark Law since “Benjamin Brown” corresponds to a full name of person, an Israeli professor, researcher of Judaism and Jewish thought, lecturer at the Department of Jewish thought at Hebrew University.

Article 4(1)(viii)

Article 4(1)(viii) is a provision to prohibit registration of trademark that contains the representation or name of any person, famous pseudonym, professional name, or pen name of another person, or famous abbreviation thereof.

Notwithstanding the provision, the article is not applicable where the applicant could obtain a written consent from the person.

The Supreme Court of Japan ruled the article has aimed to protect personality rights of a living individual. Therefore, the article is not applicable when the person is no longer alive.

The applicant filed an appeal against the rejection on March 20, 2023 and argued that registration of the mark “Benjamin Brown” in relation to goods of classes 25 and 28 would never cause damages of personal right to Israeli professor at Hebrew University.

JPO Appeal Board decision

The Appeal Board found that the applied mark “Benjamin Brown” shall be conceived as a coined word in its entirety. Relevant consumers are unlikely to associate it with a full name of particular person.

It is uncertain if “Benjamin Brown” is a full name of the professor or alive (!). Besides, the Board can’t find any reason to believe that his name has been highly recognized among consumers in Japan.

If so, the applied mark shall not be subject to Article 4(1)(viii). Since the examiner made an error in applying the article, it should be cancelled in due course, the Board decided.

Japan IP High Court Decision to A Position Mark of Dr. Martens’ Yellow Welt Stitch

On August 10, 2023, the Japan IP Hight Court ruled to dismiss an appeal by Airwair International Limited to the JPO’s rejection against a position mark for Dr. Martens’ Yellow Welt Stitch.

[Court case no. Reiwa 5(Gyo-ke)10003]

Dr. Martens’ Yellow Welt Stitch

Airwair International Limited, a UK company, applied a position mark consisting of a yellow stitching around the perimeter of footwear on the outer sole edge (see below) for use on leather shoes and boots in class 25 with the JPO on June 12, 2018 (TM App no. 2018-77608).

Allegedly, first use of the position mark on the Dr. Martens “1460” boots has dated back to 1960 in UK. Leather shoes and boots bearing the yellow welt stitch have been continuously distributed in Japan by the applicant or a local subsidiary (Dr. Martens Japan) via company store (61 shops at present) and major shoes retailers since 1985. Recent annual sales for Dr.  Martens’ shoes in Japan exceed 6 billion Japanese yens and over 460,000 pairs. Airwair has routinely monitored and taken legal actions against lookalikes of shoes bearing the yellow welt stitch and been successful in stopping distribution of following shoes.

According to the brand awareness survey that targeted a total of 1,019 men and women aged from 15 to 59, 30.7% of the interviewees who have purchased leather shoes and boots could answer Dr. Martens at the sight of black leather shoes with the yellow welt stitch and 37.6% selected Dr. Martens from multiple choice.

On August 23, 2022, The JPO Appeal Board decided the yellow stitching of Dr. Martens does not possess its own distinctive character by stating that relevant consumers would not see the stitch as a source indicator, but as a mere decoration. The Board also negated acquired distinctiveness of the position mark based on the fact that a majority of frequent users of the goods in question could not connect the stitch with Dr. Martens. Accordingly, the Board sustained the examiner’s rejection (Appeal case no. 2021-2446).

Airwair filed an appeal against the JPO Appeal Board decision and argued inherent and acquired distinctiveness of the Dr. Martens’ yellow welt stitch in relation to leather shoes and goods.

IP High Court decision

Inherent distinctiveness

The Court paid attention to the circumstance that plenty of leather shoes and boots have been manufactured by means of the Goodyear Welted Method for long years and the thread stitched to attach the upper to the sole has often identical or similar color to the upper and sole. If so, in relation to yellow-colored shoes, a yellow stitch would be anything but distinctive.

Bearing in mind that the applied mark does not specify a color of the upper and the sole, the judge had a view that it is allowed to assess inherent distinctiveness of the position mark in relation to the shoes with a yellow thread, upper and sole and any colors.

Based on the foregoing, the Court found the position mark lacks inherent distinctiveness in relation to leather shoes and boots and shall be unregistrable based on Article 3(1)(iii) of the Trademark Law.

Acquired distinctiveness

The Court questioned relevance of the brand awareness survey that excluded consumers who had not purchased either leather shoes or boots in the past year. However, by taking account of an expert opinion that points out 15% shall be sufficient to admit distinctiveness of trade dress as a source indicator especially in fashion industry and the survey revealed there were over four times as many interviewees who selected Dr. Martens than Timberland (7.9%) from multiple choice, the judge ruled Dr. Martens’ yellow welt stitch has acquired a certain degree of recognition as a sign that the black leather shoes originate from the Airwair company.

In the meantime, the Court held there is doubt if the position mark would play a role in indicating its source even when used on a yellow or similar colored outsole or welt. As a matter of fact, Airwair has not taken actions against shoes having non-black outsoles and welts.

Given the applied mark does not restrict a color of shoes, a fact that Dr. Martens’ yellow welt stitch has played a role of source indication in relation to black leather shoes and boots is insufficient to find acquired distinctiveness of the appled mark and admit registration under Article 3(2) of the Trademark Law.

Obviously, the Court opens a gate to register Dr. Martens’ yellow welt stitch provided that a position mark consists of yellow stich and black upper and welt.

JPO Appeal Board Rejects Hermes Packaging Colors

On April 25, 2023, the JPO Appeal Board dismissed an appeal filed by HERMES INTERNATIONAL, a French luxury fashion house, and upheld the examiner’s rejection of TM App no. 2018-133223 for a color mark of Hermes box due to lack of inherent and acquired distinctiveness.

[Appeal case no. 2021-13743]

Color mark of Hermes box

On October 25, 2018, HERMES INTERNATIONAL filed a trademark application for its iconic packaging colors, orange and brown (see below), as a color mark to be used on various goods in class 3, 14, 16, 18, and retail services in class 35 with the Japan Patent Office (JPO) [TM application no. 2018-133223].

On July 9, 2021, the JPO examiner rejected the applied mark based on Articles 3(1)(iii) and 3(1)(vi) of the Japan Trademark Law by stating that colors per se would not have any distinctive character. It has been inherently selected to produce aesthetic function or psychological effect on all goods and services. Because of this reason, relevant consumers at the sight of goods or services bearing the applied combination of colors, orange and brown are unlikely to recognize it as a source indicator.

Appeal against the examiner’s rejection by Hermes

Hermes filed an appeal against the rejection on October 8, 2022, and argued inherent distinctiveness as well as acquired distinctiveness of the color mark.

In addition to the evidence regarding the substantial use of Hermes box for the past six decades, in order to bolster the acquired distinctiveness of the packaging color per se, Hermes conducted market research that targeted men and women in their 30s to 50s with incomes JPY10,000,000 and above residing in 9 prefectures. According to the research report, 36.9% of the interviewees answered Hermes when shown three boxes in different shapes with the color mark. 43.1% chose Hermes from the ten options.

JPO Appeal Board decision

The Appeal Board did not find any error in the examiner’s findings. The Board held “Colors are selected to enhance the impression and aesthetics of goods and services. Some colors are obtained naturally or inevitably to ensure the function of goods or services. Therefore, colors are not recognized to indicate the origin of goods or services and distinguish them from competitors.

The Board finds no particular reason to treat the case differently in the circumstances that competitors have used similar combinations of colors including orange and brown in the relevant industries. If so, the examiner’s findings are adequate and would not error in applying Article 3(1)(iii) and (vi) of the Trademark Law.

With respect to the acquired distinctiveness of Hermes box, the Board questioned the relevance of the market research to the issue by stating that relevant consumers of the goods and service in question shall not be restricted to “men and women in their 30s to 50s with incomes JPY10,000,000 and above”. Presumably, 43.1% would be much lower if general consumers nationwide are included in the research. If so, it would be anything but unreasonable to find the applied mark has yet to acquire distinctiveness among relevant consumers.

Based on the foregoing, the Board accordingly upheld the examiner’s rejection and decided to refuse the color mark of the Hermes box under Article 3(1)(iii) and (vi) as well as 3(2) of the Trademark Law.

Hermes is entitled to file an appeal to the IP High Court by August 23, 2023.

Trademark dispute: RIVER vs river

In a recent decision, the JPO Appeal Board found TM Application no. 2021-5278 for the stylized “river” mark is dissimilar to earlier TM Reg no. 5704488 for the mark “RIVER” with design irrespective of designating the same consulting service in class 35.
[Appeal case no. 2021-17274, decision date: June 22, 2022]

TM Application 2021-5278

The dispute mark consists of the stylized word “river” depicted with the figurative element (see below right). The mark was filed in the name of Cultive, Inc for use in advertising and publicity services, business management analysis, or business consultancy service in class 35 on January 19, 2021.

The JPO examiner rejected the mark due to a conflict with earlier TM Reg no. 5704488 for the mark “RIVER” with a design (see above left) based on Article 4(1)(x) of the Japan Trademark Law.

Article 4(1)(xi) is a provision to refrain from registering a junior mark that is deemed identical with, or similar to, an earlier registered mark.

The applicant filed an appeal on December 15, 2021, and argued dissimilarity of the mark.

JPO decision

Astonishingly, the JPO Appeal Board found “By virtue of figurative elements, the disputed mark as a whole gives rise to an impression of distinctive and unified design that evokes the image of flowing water and green leaves. Furthermore, the color composition also gives the impression that the mark is designed to evoke the image of flowing water and green leaves. If so, even though the mark may give rise to a sound and meaning of “river”, it is reasonable to believe that the source of the services is identified based on the impression created by the distinctive appearance of the mark rather than its sound and concept in the course of transactions.”

Likewise, the Board found “being that the literal portion “RIVER” would not be deemed a prominent portion of the cited mark, even if the cited mark can give rise to a sound and meaning of “RIVER”, it is reasonable to consider that relevant consumers distinguish the source of the services bearing the cited mark by means of overall impression, rather than it’s sound and concept.

Based on the above findings, the Board concluded “it is obvious that there is a remarkable difference in the appearance of both marks. Even if the disputed mark and the cited mark are both pronounced “RIVER” and mean “river”, the similarity in sound and concept shall not outweigh the distinctiveness caused by a remarkable difference in appearance. Therefore, the disputed mark is unlikely to cause confusion and dissimilar to the cited mark.”

Consequently, the Board decided to disaffirm the examiner’s rejection and grant protection of the disputed mark.

“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]


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.