On October 9, 2012, six retailers, BEST BUY, COSTCO, GAP, OLD
NAVY, GUESS? and WAL-MART, filed a motion in the Superior Court of
Québec seeking a declaratory judgement against the
Office québécoise de la langue
française ("OQLF") that the use of
their trademarks on signage, without a French descriptor,
does not breach the Charter of the French Language (the
"Charter") and its regulations.
The court challenge is the result of a campaign launched by the
OQLF in 2011 that aims to require more public use of French on
commercial signage. While the Charter generally requires French as
the language of commerce in Québec, since 1993 the
Charter's regulations provided an exception for recognized
trademarks. Businesses have relied upon this exception to display
signs based on English trademarks without any additional
descriptive wording in French. However, in a move that has
surprised and threatens to inconvenience many businesses, the OQLF
made a distinction between trademarks and business names, finding
public signs to be a display of a business name rather than a
trademark. As a result of this distinction, the OQLF has cited
Section 27 of the Charter's Regulation respecting the
language of commerce and business (the Regulation) which
requires business names to include language, in French, describing
the nature of the business; the OQLF has relied on this section of
the Regulation as the basis for requiring a French descriptor on
The campaign targets all businesses, not just retailers, but these
retailers have decided to seek the Court's interpretation of
the Charter and its regulations, which could put an end to the
debate. According to the motion, the OQLF has apparently threatened
to suspend Guess? and Wal-Mart's "francization"
certificates. (These certificates are issued by the OQLF to
businesses that it considers to have widely adopted the use of
French at all levels of the business.)
Since the motion was brought, the Québec government/OQLF has
challenged the jurisdiction of the Superior Court, alleging that
the Court of Québec is the proper forum. In addition, the
Retail Council of Canada and the International Trademark
Association have intervened as interested parties in the case. The
motion is scheduled to be heard in October 2013.
Recently, the Québec's minority Parti
Québécois government introduced a bill to amend the
Charter. The bill seeks to modify the Charter with the goal of
enhancing French language requirements with stricter rules, but
does not address the OQLF's interpretation of trademarks on
signage being business names requiring a French descriptor. This
bill is still in its early stages before the National
Many businesses operating in Québec also operate outside the
province displaying signs that are based on English trademarks.
Consider as a hypothetical example, a business that operates
furniture stores in association with the trademark DAILY
The OQLF website indicates that a commercial sign of such a
business in Québec would be compliant with the Charter and
the Regulation only if:
the English trademark is accompanied by a French descriptor,
an alternative French trademark is displayed alone on the sign
, such as:
LES BEAUX JOURS
the English trademark is accompanied by a descriptive phrase in
French, such as:
DAILY LIVING Meubles, literie et décoration
or both an English trademark and a French trademark are
included, with the French mark having marked prominence, such
LES BEAUX JOURS DAILY LIVING
The OQLF has been publicly criticized in the past few months for
its aggressive attacks on Montréal businesses, including one
against a well-established restaurant for using the Italian word
"pasta" in its menu. This complaint received so much
negative media attention that the head of the OQLF subsequently had
to resign. The Québec Language Minister has since indicated
that the OQLF will seek to adopt a more sensible approach toward
enforcing compliance with the Charter.
With the pending bill and the court action, there will certainly be
important developments and changes in the months ahead.
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.
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