IP High Court Rejected TM Registration of AP “ROYAL OAK” Watch Design

On March 28, 2024, the Japan IP High Court decided to dismiss the appeal filed by Audemars Piguet Holding SA, a Swiss luxury watchmaker, against the JPO’s decision (Appeal No. 2021-013234) to reject TM Application No. 2020-20319 for the device mark representing AP’s iconic “ROYAL OAK” watch collection for lack of both inherent and acquired distinctiveness.
[Court case no. Reiwa5(Gyo-ke)10119]


Audemars Piguet “ROYAL OAK” Watch Collection

On February 26, 2020, Audemars Piguet Holding SA (AP) filed a trademark application for the shape of the flagship watch collection “ROYAL OAK” (see below) to be used on ‘watches’ in class 14 with the Japan Patent Office (JPO) [TM application no. 2020-20319].

The mark consists of a dial with tapisserie pattern and hour markers, minute track, date window, an octagonal bezel with 8 hexagonal screws, case, a crown, and a lug of the famed “ROYAL OAK” watch collections.


JPO Refusal

On June 8, 2023, the JPO Appeal Board affirmed the examiner’s rejection and decided to refuse registration of the applied mark due to a lack of inherent distinctiveness based on Articles 3(1)(iii) of the Japan Trademark Law by stating that relevant consumers would simply recognize it as a generic shape of a wristwatch, not a specific source indication since many watchmakers have supplied with similar shape to the dial, bezel, case, crown, and lug of the applied mark (see below examples).

Besides, the Board found the produced evidence is insufficient to determine whether the shape per se has acquired nationwide recognition as a source indicator of AP’s watches.

Audemars Piguet Holding SA filed a lawsuit with the Japan IP High Court on October 20, 2023, and disputed inherent and acquired distinctiveness of the applied mark.


IP High Court ruling

  • Inherent distinctiveness: Article 3(1)(iii)

In the decision, the judge said “There is no particular circumstance in which the shape represented by the applied mark is taken novel in comparison with the shapes of other wristwatches. If so, it is considered within the range of shapes normally required to achieve basic function of the goods. Even supposing that the shape is unique as a whole, the shape of each component is made in a form suitable for use as a wristwatch, and selected from the viewpoint to achieve the function of the goods. Therefore, the applied mark lacks distinctiveness since it remains within the scope of expected selection of the shape for functional reasons of a wristwatch.”

AP claimed the JPO finding is inadequate because none of competitors watches have the same combination of three unique features, namely, (i) an octagonal bezel, (ii) 8 hexagonal screws, and (iii) tapisserie pattern on the surface of a dial. Visual similarity in one or two components are insufficient to deny inherent distinctiveness of the applied mark.

However, the court did not agree with this allegation and said “It is sufficient to assess whether each shape of components is distinctive as part of the shape of wristwatch”.

  • Acquired distinctiveness: Article 3(2)

AP argued acquired distinctiveness of the applied mark as a result of substantial use since 1972. Allegedly, annual sales of the “ROYAL OAK” luxury watches exceed JPY 8 billion on average in the past six years. Each year, AP spent more than JPY400 million on advertisement and promotion in Japan.

In this respect, the court pointed out the “ROYAL OAK” watches have some collections that do not represent three unique features, such as, “Royal Oak Offshore” and “Royal Oak Concept” (see below). If so, the annual sales and expenditures on advertisement and promotion would not all attribute to watches representing the applied mark.

Besides, AP has not produced the result of market research to demonstrate a certain degree of recognition of the applied mark. Accordingly, the court has no reason to believe the applied mark per se has played a role in identifying the source of famous luxury watch, Audemas Piguet.

Based on the foregoing, the court determined that the JPO did not err in its findings and that the application of Article 3(1)(iii) and 3(2) was appropriate. As a result, the court decided to dismiss the appeal in its entirely.

Japan IP High Court said No to registering the color of Hermes packaging.

The Japan IP High Court ruled to dismiss Herme’s appeal against the JPO decision that rejected Hermes packaging color due to a lack of inherent and acquired distinctiveness.
[Court case no. Reiwa5 (Gyo-ke) 10095, ruled on March 11, 2024]


Color mark of Hermes box

On August 23, 2023, HERMES INTERNARTIONAL filed an appeal with the Japan IP High Court to seek the cancellation of the JPO refusal decision (Appeal case no. 2021-13743) that denied registration of TM App no. 2018-133223 for a color mark consisting of orange on the entire box and brown on the upper outline of the box. (see below)

The application designates various goods in classes 3, 14, 16, 18, and retail services for the goods in class 35.


Second Market Research

HERMES conducted a second market research study in August 2023 to demonstrate acquired distinctiveness of its packaging color. The study targeted men and women in their 30s to 50s residing in nine prefectures who expressed interest in bags, accessories, watches, cosmetics, or perfume and had purchased either of these items within the past six months.

According to the second research report, 39.2% of respondents (2,060 in total) answered Hermes when shown three Hermes boxes in different shapes. 44.4% chose Hermes from the ten options (It is notable that 27.2% of respondents selected “Louis Vuitton” as their answer).


IP High Court decision

In their ruling, the judges pointed out the applied mark is classified into a mark consisting of colors, but from descriptions of mark, it is considered a two-color mark combined with a three-dimensional shape (a box).

The judges also noted the submitted evidence did not demonstrate the actual use of the applied mark in relation to perfumery of class 3 and paper boxes, paper bags, paper packages and wrapping papers of class 16, nor did it substantiate the use of the mark in relation to retail services for these goods in class 35.

The judge recognized that the “Hermes” brand has gained significant recognition in Japan, and its degree of renown is considered to be one of the most prominent among all fashion brands. From the submitted advertisement and publications, the applied mark evidently has been used as a symbolic color to indicate “Hermes” in a marketing tactic designed to enhance brand value. It is clear that the Hermes box is a well-known and important identifier for consumers interested in or who have purchased luxury fashion items.

The issue is whether relevant consumers can identify Hermes from the colors per se on Hermes box, without the word “Hermes” and the horse and carriage emblem. In this respect, the court said it useful to review brand recognition research especially in a case for color mark. The judges said the result of two market researches are sufficient (Recognition rate: approximately 40%) to admit acquired distinctiveness in general. However, two researches do not target general consumers by excluding age under 29 and over 60, and limiting their incomes JPY10,000,000 and above (1st research) or those who expressed interest in bags, accessories, watches, cosmetics, or perfume and had purchased either of these items within the past six months (2nd research).

Given the applied mark covers various goods that are regularly consumed by the general public, the researches with such limitations are inadequate and insufficient as evidence to demonstrate acquired distinctiveness of the color mark in question.

Therefore, the court has a reason to believe the JPO did not make an error in denying inherent and acquired distinctiveness of the applied mark and rejecting it based on Article 3(1)(iii) and 3(2) of the Trademark Law.

Based on the foregoing, the court decided to dismiss the entire appeal by Hermes.

JPO rejection to Kubota Tractors’ Color Marks

On October 31, 2023, the Japan Patent Office (JPO) rejected color marks for use on farm tractors by KUBOTA Corporation due to a lack of inherent and acquired distinctiveness in relation to farm tractors in class 12.


Kubota farm tractors

KUBOTA Corporation, established in 1890, a Japanese company manufacturing a wide range of agricultural machines, launched its farm tractors in 1960. According to the allegations, KUBOTA has used an orange color and black-and-orange colors on its farm tractors since 1980. In recent years, the tractors have occupied top market share of around 50% in Japan.

https://www.kubota.com/products/tractor/index.html

On December 26, 2018, KUBOTA applied for registration of color marks (see below) consisting of an orange color and color combinations (orange and black / orange, black and white) with the JPO in relation to farm tractors of class 12.


JPO rejection

The JPO examiner rejected the applications based on Article 3(1)(iii) of the Japan Trademark Law and found every color mark does not satisfy requirements of Article 3(2) by stating that:

  1. Farm tractors with similar color have been distributed by several competitors. Orange color has been commonly used on other agricultural machinery. Under the circumstances, there is no distinctive character to apply and use the applied color(s) on body, front grill, wheels of farm tractors. If so, the color marks are deemed descriptive in relation to the designated goods and shall be rejected based on Article 3(1)(iii).
  2. The market research that targeted 589 consumers resulted in approx. 30% of the interviewees answering “KUBOTA”. The result is insufficient to admit the color(s) per se has acquired distinctiveness as a source indicator because more than 30% associated the mark with other competitors in spite that Kubota’s tractors have occupied top market share for long years.
  3. In view of the fact that orange corresponds to one of safety colors determined by the Japan Industrial Standards (JIS), there is a high demand to freely use the color in our society.
  4. Based on the foregoing, the examiner has no reason to believe the applied color marks have acquired a secondary meaning and played a role in identifying the source of Kubota’s farm tractors by itself.

Japan IP High Court ruled “athlete Chiffon” descriptive in relation to hotel and restaurant services.

On October 12, 2023, the Japan IP High Court affirmed the JPO refusal decision to TM App no. 2021-93231 for word mark “athlete Chiffon” in class 43 due to a lack of distinctiveness.

[Court case no. Reiwa5(Gyo-ke)10038]

JPO refusal decision

Disputed mark, consisting of two words “athlete” and “Chiffon” in standard character, was filed for use of providing temporary accommodation; accommodation bureaux services; providing foods and beverages in class 43 with The Japan Patent Office (JPO) on July 27, 2021 (TM App no. 2021-93231).

The JPO examiner rejected the mark based on Article 3(1)(iii) and Article 4(1)(xvi) of the Japan Trademark Law by stating that relevant consumers at sight of the disputed mark would merely conceive of a restaurant to provide Chiffon cakes for athletes and it will cause misrepresentation of a particular quality of service when used on other services.

Applicant filed an appeal against the examiner’s rejection. However, the JPO Appeal Board sustained the examiner’s findings and decided to refuse the disputed mark on March 22, 2023.


Appeal to the IP High Court

On April 20, 2023, the applicant filed a lawsuit to dispute registrability of the disputed mark with the IP High Court and asked the court to annul the JPO decision based on the facts that the JPO has allowed registration of lots of trademarks containing the term “athlete”, but none of them restrict its usage of designated goods or services “for athletes”. Cake shops containing a term “Chiffon” in their trade name have even delt with cakes other than chiffon. If so, the JPO obviously made an error in denying distinctiveness of respective term “athlete” and “Chiffon”. Because of it, the JPO refusal decision shall be cancelled.


IP High Court decision

From the produced evidence, the IP High Court found that, in the industry of foods and beverages, terms such as “athlete cake” and “athlete pan cakes” are commonly used to indicate special goods and service for athletes. If so, relevant consumers and traders would consider a term consisting of “athlete” followed by generic word of goods or service as an indication to specify the target of the goods or service (for athletes). “Chiffon” is known in the industry as a term to indicate ‘food that is made light by adding the clear part of eggs that have been beaten’ and commonly used in conjunction with other descriptive term, e.g., “Choco chiffon”, “banana chiffon”, “Valentine chiffon”.

Under the circumstances, the court has a reason to believe that relevant consumers would consider the term “athlete Chiffon” as a mere descriptive indication of the restaurant to provide chiffon (cakes) for athletes when used in relation to the service in question.

Screen capture from “athlete Chiffron” facebook page

A fact that several cake shops containing a term “Chiffon” in their trade name have delt with cakes other than chiffon is irrelevant to the case given the consumers conceive of chiffon cake at sight of the term “athlete Chiffon” when used on restaurant service.

Based on the foregoing, the court held the JPO did not make any error in finding facts and applying trademark law and thus the disputed mark shall be unregistrable under Article 3(1)(iii) and 4(1)(xvi).

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.

CASIO Successful in Registering 3D Shape of “G-SHOCK” Watch

The Japan Patent Office (JPO) disaffirmed the examiner’s rejection and granted protection to the 3D shape of the Casio “G-Shock” watch by finding acquired distinctiveness as a result of substantial use over the past four decades.

[Appeal case no. 20212-11052, Gazette issued date: June 30, 2023]

CASIO “G-SHOCK” Watch

On April 28, 2021, Casio Computer Co., Ltd. filed a trademark application for the 3D shape of the first-released G-Shock, the DW-5000 (see below) to be used on ‘watches’ in class 14 with the JPO (TM application no. 2021-52961).


Rejection by JPO Examiner

On April 11, 2022, the JPO examiner rejected the 3D mark based on Article 3(1)(iii) of the Japan Trademark Law.

In the rejection, taking into consideration various decorations or patterns on the belt and case of wristwatches by other watchmakers (see below), the examiner considered the 3D shape of the applied mark lacks distinctiveness as a source indicator of wristwatch because relevant consumers and traders would recognize it simply represents a common shape of wristwatch adopted to enhance aesthetic function and psychological effect on the goods in question.

The examiner negated the acquired distinctiveness of the 3D shape of “G-Shock”, the DW-5000 regardless of continuous use on Casio’s wristwatches for 40 years on the grounds that:

  1. On the goods, catalogs, and advertisements, wordmarks “CASIO” and “G-SHOCK” have been constantly used as well.
  2. The “G-Shock” wristwatch collection has a lot of models that have a different appearance from the applied 3D shape.
  3. The market research that targeted a total of 1,100 men and women aged over 16 resulted in 55.52% of the interviewees answering “Casio” or “G-Shock” to an open-ended question when shown the 3D shape of the DW-5000. The percentage is insufficient to admit the 3D shape per se has acquired distinctiveness as a source indicator.
A screen shot from casio.com

On July 15, 2022, Casio filed an appeal against the rejection and disputed the acquired distinctiveness.


JPO Appeal Board decision

The Appeal Board affirmed the examiner’s finding in applying Article 3(1)(iii) of the Trademark Law.

In the meantime, the Board paid attention to the fact 66.27% of the interviewees selected “Casio” or “G-Shock” to a closed-ended question, where it mentions G-Shock along with other close competitors.

Provided that more than 60% of consumers associate the 3D shape with Casio or G-Shock, and the shape has the reputation as a representative model of the G-Shock with its unique shock-resistance form, the Board has a reason to believe the 3D shape per se has acquired a substantial degree of recognition among relevant consumers and played a role in source indicator of Casio’s wristwatches. If so, the examiner errored in applying Article 3(2) of the Trademark Law.

Based on the foregoing, the Board decided to cancel the examiner’s rejection and admitted registration of the applied mark exceptionally based on Article 3(2).

Audemars Piguet Unsuccessful Challenge of TM Registration for Iconic Shape of “ROYAL OAK” Timepiece

On June 8, 2023, the Japan Patent Office (JPO) dismissed an appeal filed by Audemars Piguet Holding SA, a Swiss luxury watchmaker, and affirmed the examiner’s rejection of TM App no. 2020-20319 for a device mark representing AP’s iconic “ROYAL OAK” watch collection by finding a lack of inherent and acquired distinctiveness. [Appeal case no. 2021-013234]


Audemars Piguet “ROYAL OAK” Watch Collection

On February 26, 2020, Audemars Piguet Holding SA (AP) filed a trademark application for the shape of the flagship watch collection “ROYAL OAK” (see below) to be used on ‘watches’ in class 14 with the Japan Patent Office (JPO) [TM application no. 2020-20319].

The mark consists of a dial with tapisserie pattern and hour markers, minute track, date window, an octagonal bezel with 8 hexagonal screws, case, crown, and a lug of the famed “ROYAL OAK” watch collections.

On July 1, 2021, the JPO examiner rejected the applied mark due to a lack of inherent distinctiveness based on Articles 3(1)(iii) of the Japan Trademark Law by stating that relevant consumers would simply recognize it as a generic shape of a wristwatch, not a specific source indication. Besides, from the produced evidence, the examiner did not find the shape per se has acquired nationwide recognition as a source indicator of AP’s watches.


Appeal against the examiner’s rejection by AP

AP filed an appeal against the rejection on October 1, 2021, and alleged inherent distinctiveness as well as acquired distinctiveness of the shape in relation to watches.

AP argued the shape shall be considered inherently distinctive by virtue of a combination of three unique features, namely, (i) an octagonal bezel, (ii) 8 hexagonal screws, and (iii) tapisserie pattern on the surface of a dial. It is inappropriate for the examiner to negate the distinctiveness of the applied mark based on similar watches by third parties that imitate “ROYAL OAK” collections.

Allegedly, “ROYAL OAK” luxury watches have been promoted for sale in Japan since 1972. Annual sales exceed JPY 8 billion on average in the past six years. Each year, AP spent more than JPY400 million on advertisement and promotion in Japan. As a result of the substantial use of the shape on famous AP watches over four decades, even if the shape inherently lacks distinctiveness, it has acquired a significant role as a source indication.


JPO Appeal Board decision

In the decision, the Board held “There are plenty of wristwatches placed in the marketplace by many watchmakers that have a similar shape to the dial, bezel, case, crown, and lug of the applied mark (see below examples). Therefore, the shape, even if it does not contain hands and strap, is unlikely to indicate the origin of goods and distinguish them from competitors”. If so, the examiner’s findings are adequate and the Board did not find any error in applying Article 3(1)(iii) of the Trademark Law on the case.

Besides, the Board questioned if the shape per se has played a role in the source indication of AP’s watches regardless of admitting the presence of “ROYAL OAK” watches in the market for long years on the following grounds.

  1. Number of official stores, 11 is by no means numerous.
  2. The evidence did not suggest any transaction of wristwatches using the applied mark (namely, a watch without strip and hands)
  3. AP did not submit objective evidence to support the sales of “ROYAL OAK” watches
  4. Since AP did not make clear the market share of “ROYAL OAK” watches, it is impossible to compare them with competitors’ watches.
  5. Publications and internet articles pertinent to the “ROYAL OAK” watches always features literal elements “ROYAL OAK”, “AP” or “AUDEMARS PIGUET”.
  6. AP did not produce a market survey to demonstrate how many consumers can identify a source of the wristwatch from the applied mark.

Based on the foregoing, the Board found the applied mark has not acquired a certain degree of recognition as a source indicator of a specific entity among relevant consumers in relation to watches under Article 3(2), and decided to refuse the shape of AP’s “ROYAL OAK” watches.

Tragic End of Trademark Challenge for Louboutin

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

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

Louboutin’s Red Soles

Fast on the heels of the introduction to register color marks in Japan, Christian Louboutin filed a trademark application for a color mark consisting of a red (Pantone 18-1663TP) colored in soles (see below) for use on high heels in class 25 on April 1, 2015 (TM App no. 2015-29921).


JPO Rejection

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

Besides, under the current trade practice, the Board considered it will inevitably cause a severe disorder and excessive restriction to competitors if it allows registration of a red color that has been freely used in the relevant industry to enhance the aesthetic appearance of shoes. Based on the foregoing, the JPO concluded the color mark shall not be registrable under Article 3(2) as well.

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


IP High Court decision

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

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

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

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

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


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

JPO Decision: the Volkswagen Beetle 3D shape Lacks Distinctiveness

The JPO Appeal Board affirmed the examiner’s rejection and decided to refuse IR no. 1379178 for the 3D shape of the Volkswagen Beetle due to a lack of inherent and acquired distinctiveness in relation to goods of classes 9, 28, and 30.

[Appeal case no. 2020-650030, Gazette issued date: January 27, 2023]

VW Beetle

German car giant Volkswagen AG filed a 3D mark representing the iconic VW Beetle car (see below) in relation to various goods including navigation apparatus for vehicles [onboard computers], toy automobiles, scale model automobiles of classes 9, 28, and 30 with the JPO via the Madrid Protocol on December 7, 2017.

The JPO examiner rejected the mark in contravention of Article 3(1)(iii) and 4(1)(xvi) of the Japan Trademark Law on March 19, 2020, by stating that the mark merely represents a common shape of goods when used on toy automobiles, scale model automobiles of class 28 and chocolate and desserts, ice creams, frozen yogurts and sorbets of class 30, and consumers will misunderstand the quality of goods when used on other designated goods.


Appeal by Volkswagen

Volkswagen filed an appeal against the rejection on July 2, 2020, and argued the inherent and acquired distinctiveness of the 3D mark as a result of substantial use on VW’s automobiles (cl. 12) for more than six decades and around 21.5 million units cumulatively.


JPO Decision

The Appeal Board at its discretion found plenty of goods in the shape of cars promoted for sale in relation to toy automobiles, scale model automobiles (cl. 28), and chocolate and desserts, frozen yogurts, and sorbets (cl. 30).

Bearing this fact in mind, the Board has a reason to believe the applied mark is adopted for a purpose of enhancing function or the aesthetic appeal of the goods in question. If so, the shape still remains within the scope of the descriptive shape of goods and shall be unregistrable due to a lack of inherent distinctiveness in relation to these goods.

Furthermore, the Board pointed out that Volkswagen stopped manufacturing cars in the shape of the applied mark in 2003. There is reasonable doubt that the 3D mark has been famous as a source indicator of VW cars after a lapse of twenty years. Besides, the applicant has not produced any evidence to demonstrate the actual use of the 3D shape on goods in classes 9, 28, and 30 and its sales.

Based on the foregoing, the Board found the 3D mark lacks inherent and acquired distinctiveness in relation to the goods in question and dismissed the appeal entirely.

IP High Court Rules Lego 3D Figure Mark Unregistrable

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

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

LEGO 3D Figure Mark

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


JPO rejection

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

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

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

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


IP High Court ruling

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

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

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

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

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