On 4-6 May 2011, before Assistant Commissioner Jones of the
Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand, the Society of Beer
Advocates (SOBA) sought to invalidate or revoke DB
Breweries' (DB) trade mark registration for
the word 'radler'.
In short, SOBA argued that at the date on which DB filed
its application to register 'radler' in 2003,
'radler' was a descriptive term for a shandy-style drink.
Alternatively, SOBA argued that 'radler' has become a
common name for such a style. DB of course opposed and denied both
arguments. The Assistant Commissioner's decision is imminent,
expected by mid-July.
Regardless of the outcome, the radler case highlights the need for
marketers, branding professionals and business owners to avoid
choosing and registering (if successful) descriptive or generic
names as trade marks for goods or services. Avoiding descriptive or
generic names may save the costs of defending trade mark
registrations from invalidation orrevocation - as DB has found
out to its expense, win or lose.
The danger of descriptive or generic brand
Descriptive or generic brand names are those which describe, for
example, the kind, quality, intended purpose, value, geographical
origin, or some other characteristic of a product or service.
In other words, a descriptive or generic name is one that is in
common use by the public to describe a product or service.
Descriptive or generic brand names are very attractive to
marketers, for example, because they are easy for consumers to
grasp and remember. I know; I speak from experience having been a
professional marketer for 15 years prior to becoming
an IP lawyer. In that time, I was involved both on
client-side and agency-side in the development of a large number of
trade marks for products and services across a wide variety of
In terms of legal rights, descriptive and generic brand names make
weak trade marks. The more descriptive or generic a brand name, the
harder it is to protect and enforce any rights in that name, and
the less chance a trade mark owner has in claiming its
particular mark is distinctive of its products or services.
A distinctive name is the key
The fundamental purpose of a brand name is to make one
trader's goods or services stand out in the crowd from
competitors'. This purpose is reflected in trade mark law in
that to qualify as a trade mark under the Trade Marks Act 2002 a
name must be capable of distinguishing one trader's goods from
another. If other traders are likely to want to use that name
in connection with their own goods or services, registration of
that name as a trade mark should be refused.
Unfortunately, due to human fallibility, a descriptive or generic
name occasionally gets through the cracks in the system and is
registered as a trade mark, resulting in an
unfair monopoly to the trade mark owner.
Radler - SOBA argued - is one such trade mark since it is the
well-known name for a style of low-alcohol beer, in the same way
pilsner, black beer, and pale ale are all well-known names for
styles of full strength beer. As a consequence of DB's monopoly
over the use of the word radler, no other trader can use radler to
describe a radler beer in New Zealand. Not surprisingly this
has left a bitter after-taste in many brewers',
beer-lovers' and consumers' mouths.
What to do when developing or choosing a brand
When developing or choosing a brand name for a product or
service, marketers and branding professionals would be advised
1. NOT choose a descriptive or generic
name that other traders are likely to want to use in the course of
trade. Involve your James & Wells trade mark attorney from the
outset to avoid doing so;
2. CONSULT your James & Wells trade
mark attorney so he/she can advise you on (a) the strength of your
proposed brand name as a trade mark; and (b) whether your proposed
brand name may infringe someone else's trade mark rights;
3. ASK your James & Wells trade mark
attorney to apply to register your brand name. A trade mark
registration is a valuable business asset which can be bought,
sold, assigned or licenced like any business asset so it makes
perfect sense to register it.
If you would like to discuss this article further, please
contact Ben Cain in our Litigation team or
contact one of our trade mark attorneys.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
James and Wells is the 2010 New Zealand Law Awards winner of
the Intellectual Property Law Award for excellence in client
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