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.

iPad vs MI PAD

JPO sided with Apple Inc. in a dispute with a China-based consumer electronics company, Xiaomi that registers and uses the “MI PAD” trademark on tablet computers by finding that “MI PAD” is likely to cause confusion with “iPad”.
[Opposition case no. 2019-685002, Gazette issued date: November 27, 2020]

Xiaomi “MI PAD”

Xiaomi, a China-based electronics manufacturer headquartered in Beijing, filed a trademark application for word mark “MI PAD” via the Madrid Protocol (IR 1223839) in respect of various goods including table computers, downloadable music files, downloadable image files in class 9, and telecommunication access services and others in class 38 on August 22, 2017.

Prior to filing the application, Xiaomi newly introduced its first tablet, the Tegra K1-powered “Mi Pad” in 2014.

The JPO admitted registration of the MI PAD mark on December 7, 2018.

Opposition by Apple “iPad”

The Opponent, whose earlier ‘iPad’ trademark for its computer tablet products was also registered in Classes 9 and 38, is the U.S. tech giant, Apple Inc.

The heart of this dispute concerned the grounds of opposition raised by Apple Inc. against Xiaomi’s ‘MI PAD’ mark registration in Japan under Article 4(1)(xv) of the Japan Trademark Law.

Article 4(1)(xv) is a provision to prohibit any mark from registering if it is likely to cause confusion with other business entities ’ well-known goods or services.

The Opponent argued the “MI PAD” mark shall cause confusion with Apple “iPad” when used tablet computers and related goods and services, given a remarkable reputation of “iPad” holding a top market share (42% in 2017, 43.2% 2018) in Japan and the close resemblance between “iPad” and “MI PAD”.

JPO decision

The Opposition Board admitted a remarkable degree of reputation and popularity of opponent trademark “iPad” based on the produced evidence boasting the top market share consecutively for the past nine years in Japan. Besides, the Board found “iPad”, consisting of “i” and “Pad”, is highly unique because the term “Pad” is anything but descriptive in relation to tablet computers.

In the assessment of mark, the Board held the dissimilarity between the signs at issue, resulting from the presence of the additional letter ‘m’ at the beginning of “MI PAD”, is not sufficient to offset the high degree of visual and phonetic similarity between the two signs. It is unquestionable that the designated goods and services are closely associated with tablet computers and consumed by the same consumers.

If so, it is likely that the consumers at the sight of disputed goods and services bearing the “MI PAD” mark would confuse or misconceive its source with Apple Inc. or any entity systematically or economically connected with the opponent.

Based on the foregoing, the Board decided opposed mark shall be canceled in contravention of Article 4(1)(xv).

Katakana to prevent mispronunciation of brands

The unique writing system of the Japanese language consists of three different character sets: Kanji (several thousands of Chinese characters), and Hiragana and Katakana (two syllabaries of 46 characters each).

Specifically, Katakana gets used to writing foreign loanwords phonetically.

By virtue of Katakana, we get a clue to learn the proper pronunciation of unpronounceable alphabetical words. In this regard, Katakana is obviously of great help to avoid phonetic slip-ups and mispronouncing high-profile brand names in Japan.

For instance, when we come across the word “YVES SAINT LAURENT” for the first time, we most likely call it “i-bes-sein-to-lo-ren-to”.
Likewise, we are likely to call “Uber” as “yu-be:ru”, “Google” as “go:gu-lu”, “NIKE” as “ni-ke”, “Levis” as “le-vi-su”, “XLARGE” as “eks-la:ji”, “Michelin” as “mi-sye-lin”, “XXIO” as “eks-esk-ai-ou”.

In other words, less attention to Katakana in promoting alphabetical brand names is likely to result in mispronunciation among the relevant public in Japan as you can see from the above instances.

What’s worse, it may give rise to a tragedy that trademark registration for the alphabetical name is insufficient to force an unauthorized entity to cease its use of a mark consisting of Katakana to represent the correct pronunciation of the name due to dissimilarity of the marks.

Provided that trademark registration is solely composed of alphabetical words, the pronunciation of the mark is construed based on the most natural, logical way to pronounce it.

In this regard, it was a bit surprised that the Supreme Court judged a wordmark written in Katakana to be read as “reeru-dyu-tan” is phonetically identical with a registered mark “L’Air du Temps” in Case 1998 (Gyo-Hi) 85. Undoubtedly the judgment was based on the facts that “L’Air du Temps” had become well-known as a brand of perfume and the registered mark had been advertised accompanying a Katanaka “reeru-dyu-tan” as well.

When we come across the word “L’Air du Temps” for the first time, little thought is given to call it “reeru-dyu-tan”. The most natural way to pronounce it is “lu-ea:-dyu-ten-po-su” indeed. Thus, the Supreme Court judgment should not be considered to negate the necessity of Katakana in avoiding mispronounced marks.

It is advisable to use and register a Katakana character representing the correct pronunciation of the brand name as well as the alphabetical letters, especially where the letters are unpronounceable to the Japanese and thus natural pronunciation is not what a brand owner expects the Japanese to call it.

NIKE uses and registers its corporate name in both respectively.

El Clasico Scores a Goal in Trademark Race

The Japan Patent Office (JPO) overturned the examiner’s refusal and decided to register the “El Clasico” mark in connection with sporting activities, production of sports events, sports information services, and other services of class 41 by finding the term shall not be recognized as football matches between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid C.F.
[Appeal case no. 2019-650060, Gazette issued date: October 30, 2020]

El Clasico

“El Clasico” is a magical phrase to make football fans passionate, emotional, and excited. The meaning of El Clasico is the Spanish name that is given to any football match between fierce Spanish rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona FC. The literal translation of El Clasico is ‘The Classic’. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “El Clasico” is defined as ‘any of the games played between the football teams Real Madrid and Barcelona’. Being that this rivalry can be dated back to the 1930s and ever since then, it is one of the most viewed annual sporting events.

Liga Nacional de Fútbol Profesional, the administrator of the Spanish football league, aka LaLiga, applied for registration of the “El Clasico” mark (see below) in relation to sporting activities, production of sports events, sports information services, and other services of class 41 via the Madrid Protocol (IR No. 1379292).

On August 15, 2019, the JPO examiner refused the applied mark due to a lack of distinctiveness in contravention of Article 3(1)(iii) of the Trademark Law. Examiner asserted that the term “El Clasico” gets to be known as football matches between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid C.F. If so, relevant consumers would conceive that services bearing the applied mark just relate to football matches between two teams. In this respect, the applied mark shall not be registrable based on Article 4(1)(xvi) as well since the consumers would mistake its nature when used on service unrelated to football matches between two teams.

LaLiga filed an appeal against the refusal on November 15, 2019.

JPO Appeal Board’s decision

The Appeal Board overturned the examiner’s decision by stating that relevant consumers and traders at the sight of the applied mark are unlikely to see the mark to represent football matches between indicate FC Barcelona and Real Madrid C.F. immediately when used on services in question.

Taking into account less familiarity with the Spanish language among relevant consumers in Japan and the literal meaning of ‘The Classic’, the Board found the term “El Clasico” would be conceived as a coined word in its entirety. Furthermore, the Board could not identify any fact that the term is commonly used to represent a specific nature or quality in connection with the services in question.

Based on the foregoing, the Board concluded the refusal shall be disaffirmed since the examiner erroneously found the applied mark “El Clasico”.

Securely Protecting Trademark Abbreviations

Japanese is prone to abbreviate trademarks. Occasionally, the abbreviation has no resemblance to its original name. A brand owner should be mindful of how the public perceives and uses its trademarks in Japan. Abbreviations or nicknames used by the public are not protected under the respective registrations given that they have no resemblance to the original names.

“Family Mart”, Japan’s second-largest convenience store franchiser since 1973, with more than 15,000 locations, is commonly called “Fa-mi-ma” among consumers. It is true that Family Mark has used only “Family Mart” in the ordinary course of their business for more than three decades. But, eventually, Family Mart decided to adopt the name on their store opened in urban office or commercial buildings.

I suppose it aims at avoiding risks of the “Famima” mark registration by a third party in view of high recognition for the name among relevant consumers and dissimilarity to “Family Mart”. Now, the mark is securely registered in the name of Family Mart.

Trademark abbreviations may serve as a barometer for well-recognition of the mark among the general public in Japan. In this respect, trademark abbreviations would not be a matter only for the Japanese company, but also for foreign brand owners. Where a trademark is composed of five sounds or more, you should mind that the general public in Japan gets to call the mark in abbreviation contrary to the brand owner’s intention. A combination mark is an easy target for abbreviation as well. BOTTEGA VENETA is called “BOTTEGA”. LUIS VUITTON is known as “VITON”. DOLCE & GABBANA is popularly called “DOLU-GABA”. STARBUCKS COFFEE is known as “SUTABA”. TOMMY HILFIGER is called “TOMI-HIRU”. Undoubtedly, the most popular name recognized in the abbreviation is “McDonald”. We seldom call it in the full name. One of the most popular fast-food chains and one of the top franchises in the world has always been called “MAKUDO” or “MAC”.

Using abbreviations, nicknames, and acronyms as trademarks may be appealing from a marketing perspective, however, trademark protection for an abbreviation has to be sought independently from the trademark protection that its extensive version might be already enjoying, and vice versa.

It came to my notice that ABERCROMBIE & FITCH, known for its shortened name “ABA-KURO”, sought Japanese trademark registration of “ABACRO” in English and its Japanese transliteration, but ended in vain due to a conflict with a senior trademark registration “ABERCRO”. A&F was unsuccessfully challenging the senior trademark registration based on non-use grounds.

Tips to Pass the JPO Trademark Registration Exam in 2 months

“JPO Status Report 2020” reveals more applicants make use of the “Accelerated Examination” in order to obtain an earlier trademark registration.

According to the latest report, the number of requests for accelerated examination in 2019 was 8,110, which increased by 54% than the previous year.

Accelerated Trademark Examination

The accelerated examination has enabled the shortening trademark examination period to 1.7 months on average. Being that it takes 7.9 months or longer for the JPO to notify the examination result at present, accelerated examination must be appealing to an applicant who wants their brand to be registered as early as possible.

The accelerated examination is available in three cases.

[Case 1]

An applicant is in use of or likely to use an applied mark on more than one of the goods/services in the designation, and in urgent need of registration.

To meet an urgent need requirement, the applicant is required to demonstrate; (i) unauthorized third party uses an applied mark, (ii) any third party request a license to use the applied mark, (iii) any third-party demand applicant to cease use of the applied mark, or (iv) applicant filed the identical mark to a foreign country.

[Case 2]

An applicant is in use of or likely to use an applied mark on every goods/service in the designation.

[Case 3]

An applicant is in use of or likely to use an applied mark on more than one of goods/services in the designation, and the description of goods/services are all in conformity with that listed in the Examination guidelines for similar goods and services.

Besides, (v) where the applicant seeks to apply for international registration of trademark identical with the applied mark through the Madrid Protocol, it is also admitted meeting an urgent need requirement for Case 1.

Less than 1.5% Success Rate for Getting Color Mark Registration in Japan

Japan opened the gate to Non-Traditional trademark, namely, color, sound, position, motion, hologram, in April 2015. It seems true that, beyond expectation, JPO has a significantly high hurdle to clear.

543 applications for color marks were filed with the Japan Patent Office (JPO) as of now (Nov 15, 2020). Among them, only 8 color marks are allowed for registration.

1. Tombow Pencil “MONO” (stationery)
2. Seven-Eleven (convenience store)
3. Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group (financial service)
4. Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group (financial service)
5. Mitsubishi Pencil “UNI” (pencil)
6. Mitsubishi Pencil “HI-UNI” (pencil)
7. Family Mart (convenience store)
8. UCC Ueshima Coffee (canned coffee)

All the registered color marks consist of more than two colors. JPO has yet to register a single case of color per se.

Most single-color marks are rejected due to a lack of distinctiveness and failure to demonstrate acquired distinctiveness. Surprisingly, 492 applications (90.6%) are already rejected or voluntarily withdrawn by the applicant.

Red Bull was unsuccessful in registering a combination of dark blue and silver on energy drinks in class 32.

Hermes also failed to register a three-color combination over various goods in class 14, 18, and 25.

43 applications are in review with the JPO as of now. Remarkably, Christian Louboutin fights for the appeal against the refusal of its iconic red-sole.

Google’s Trademark Battle over Street View

The Opposition Board of the Japan Patent Office (JPO) sided with Google LLC and decided to cancel trademark registration no. 6086044 for word mark “STREET VIEW MODEL (SVM)” due to a likelihood of confusion with Google’s “STREET VIEW”.
[Opposition case no. 2018-900391, Gazette issued on September 25, 2020]

Opposed mark

A Japanese individual filed a trademark application for word mark “STREET VIEW MODEL (SVM)” written in Japanese Katakana character (see below) by designating the service of ‘providing online non-downloadable videos and photographs’ in class 41 with the JPO on December 27, 2017.

The opposed mark was registered and published for opposition on October 30, 2018.

Google “Street View”

On December 28, 2018, Google LLC filed an opposition against “STREET VIEW MODEL (SVM)” and argued that the opposed mark shall be canceled in contravention of Article 4(1)(xv) and (xix) of the Trademark Law based on its owned senior registration for the STREET VIEW mark (IR no. 12138361) in class 9 and 42 because both marks resemble and relevant consumers would confuse or associate the opposed mark, containing “STREET VIEW” famous for the service featured on Google map enabling to provide panoramic 360-degree views from the designated street, with the opponent when used on the designated service in question.

IR no. 12138361

Article 4(1)(xv) prohibits registering a trademark which is likely to cause confusion with the business of other entities.

Board Decision

The Board did not question the famousness of the STREET VIEW mark as a source indicator of Google’s service for providing digital images on a map at the time of both initial filing and registration of the opposed mark.

In the assessment of similarity between the marks, the Board found that the average consumers would likely pay considerable attention to the term “STREET VIEW” of the opposed mark because of its fame. If so, a high degree of similarity exists between the opposed mark and “STREET VIEW”.

It is true that the “STREET VIEW” mark is anything but a fancy or invented word since it consists of two common English words that the relevant consumers are familiar with, however, given the designated service in question and Google “STREET VIEW” are related to providing digital images via the internet, these are supposedly purchased or consumed by the same consumers. If so, the Board considers the opponent business, and the service in question are closely associated.

Based on the foregoing, the Board concluded that relevant traders and consumers are likely to confuse or misconceive a source of the opposed mark when used in relation to the service (class 41) with Google or any entity systematically or economically connected with the opponent and thus decided cancellation in contravention of Article 4(1)(xv).

Court Case: Parallel imports of trademarked goods in Japan

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


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

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

Parallel imports

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

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

Supreme Court Ruling

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

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

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

Tokyo District Court Decision

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

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

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

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

Click here to read the full decision

LEGO Triumphs In ‘CATTYLEGO’ Trademark Battle at JPO

LEGO eventually scored a win over PETSWEET CO., Ltd., a Taiwanese company, in a trademark dispute against ‘CATTYLEGO’ thanks to the JPO’s finding a likelihood of confusion with “LEGO” famous for toy brick.
[Invalidation case no. 2018-890084, Gazette issued date: September 25, 2020]


PETSWEEY Co. (派斯威特國際有限公司), Ltd., a Taiwanese company, applied for trademark registration in Japan for the mark consisting of a word “CATTYLEGO” and rectangle device (see below) on June 15, 2016, over toy boxes and chests, dog kennels, fodder racks, pet cushions, pet house in class 20 and toys for pets in class 28.

The Japan Patent Office (JPO) registered the mark on December 2, 2016 (TM Registration no. 5902786) and published for opposition on January 10, 2017.


LEGO Juris A/S, the world’s largest Danish toy manufacturer, filed an opposition against the mark ‘CATTYLEGO’ on the final day of a two-month duration for the opposition, and argued it shall be canceled in contravention of Article 4(1)(viii), (xi), (xv) and (xix) of the Japan Trademark Law, but in vain. Click here to read more about the opposition.

Subsequently, LEGO lodged a trademark invalidation trial with the JPO on October 31, 2018, based on the same grounds.

JPO Decision

The Invalidation Board did not question a high degree of reputation and popularity of the LEGO trademark as a source indicator of toy brick by finding consecutive promotion of LEGO bricks in Japan for more than five decades, annual sales amounting to over 8 billion yen (Approx. USD 74 million ), its remarkable share in the sector of kids toys, and almost half of preschools in Japan have adopted the bricks for educational purpose.

Given the remarkable reputation of the LEGO mark, the Board held relevant consumers/traders at the sight of the ‘CATTYLEGO’ mark would inevitably conceive the term “LEGO” as a dominant portion. If so, both marks may give rise to a similar sound and concept pertinent to “LEGO”.

The Board also affirmed toy brick and the goods in question are closely associated in view of suppliers, commercial channels, usage, consumers.

Consequently, by taking into consideration the totality of the circumstances, the Board found relevant consumers with an ordinary care would confuse or associate the goods in question bearing the ‘CATTYLEGO’ mark with LEGO or any entity systematically or economically connected with LEGO, and thus the mark shall be invalidated based on Article 4(1)(xv) of the trademark law.