The Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM) recently announced a new common practice for trademarks registered in black and white or in grayscale in Europe. Under the new practice, the OHIM will no longer treat trademarks filed in black and white or grayscale (in the following black and white trademarks) as if the mark covers all color variations. The changes may have undesirable legal consequences for some trademark owners: some black and white trademarks that are currently only used in color, might be nullified before the trademark office in Europe. In the light of the changes, trademark owners should analyze their portfolios and should question whether or not the registered trademarks still provide sufficient protection against competitors.
The new common practice was made public in a recent online publication of the OHIM and will be applied at this office and some national trademark offices in Europe (with the exception of the trademark offices of Sweden, Denmark and Norway).
A trademark filed in black and white or grayscale is only considered to be identical to a colored mark if the differences are so insignificant that they would not be noticed by the relevant public. An insignificant difference will be assumed, if the average consumer would notice the difference only upon side by side examination of the trademarks.
The change in practice will have implications for priority claims, in opposition proceedings and with regard to the question of use preserving the right to use the trademark. According to the OHIM’s announcement, infringement issues remain unaffected. Also, the practice will not affect the use of marks in color for the purposes of acquired distinctiveness, the assessment of similarities of colors and the colors marks per se.
1. Priority Claims
A black and white trademark will only be considered identical to a colored mark or trade mark application, the priority of which is claimed, if the differences are so insignificant that they would not be noticed by the public. This will be an exceptional situation in practice, because the public will usually notice even small differences between trademarks filed in black and white or grayscale and their colored counterparts.
Similarly, when assessing the similarity of black and white marks and a colored version of the same sign, the test in opposition proceedings before the OHIM will be, whether the differences are so insignificant that they would not be noticed by the public. Also in this situation the assessment will be based on the perception of the average consumer.
It should be noted that even in cases where the characters are not identical the trademarks could still be considered similar by the opposition divisions. Similarity between the signs may also give rise to a likelihood of confusion of the marks. Nonetheless, the change in practice will at least in the practice before the trademark offices result in a narrower scope of protection for black and white marks.
Under the current law, the use of a trademark in a different form than the registered form is sufficient, provided that the distinctive character of the mark is not altered. Under the new common practice, a change in color in itself does not change the distinctive character of a trademark registered in black-white for the purpose of use, provided that:
- The word / figurative elements are the same and are the main distinctive elements;
- The contrast of shades is respected;
- The color or combination of colors does not have distinctive character in itself; and
- Color is not one of the main contributors of the overall distinctiveness of the sign.
According to our preliminary assessment, black and white trademarks that had been registered for more than 5 years are now exposed to an increased risk of being revoked due to non-use, if a use of the sign can only be substantiated by the proprietor for the colored version of the sign.
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