On April 10, the Quebec Superior Court released its decision on
a challenge mounted by several international retailers against a
policy of the Office québécois de la langue
française (OQLF) regarding use of non-French trademarks
on storefront signs.1 The Court confirmed that
businesses can use their registered trademarks on public signs
outside their premises without the need to add generic French
Trademarks and the Charter of the French Language
The Trademark Exception
The Charter of the French Language (Charter) is
intended to protect the prominence of the use of French in Quebec.
To that end, the Charter and its associated Regulation
Respecting the Language of Commerce and Business (Regulation)
specify that French must appear on inscriptions on products,
advertisements and other business materials. However, under the
Regulation, there has always been an exception for trademarks that
are not French and for which no French equivalent has been
registered. Essentially, this exception allows the use of
trademarks in languages other than French without the need for
translation or for French to appear alongside the trademark.
OQLF's 2011 Reinterpretation
In 2011, the OQLF announced it was changing its interpretation
of the trademark exception under the Regulation. The OQLF pointed
to another section in the Regulation, which required "trade
names" not in French to include a generic French term, or
otherwise be altered to include or give prominence to French. The
OQLF essentially stated this "trade name" requirement
trumped the trademark exception, and therefore any business that
used a non-French trademark on commercial advertising and public
signs, including storefront signs, would be required to alter its
trademark to include French.2
The Challenge by International Retailers
Following the OQLF policy change, a group of international
retailers (including Best Buy, Costco, Gap, Old Navy, Guess? and
Wal-Mart) filed a motion in the Superior Court of Quebec. In their
application, the retailers alleged that the OQLF had threatened to
suspend the "francization" certificates of some of the
retailers. These certificates indicate that the OQLF is satisfied
with a business' efforts to adopt the use of French at all
levels, and entitle a business to certain government rebates and
funding. The retailers sought a declaration from the Court that
their use of non-French trademarks did not infringe the Charter,
and that the OQLF's reinterpretation was incorrect.
In its ruling, the Superior Court held that the trademark
exception does apply to the use of trademarks on public signs,
including storefront signs, and that the public display of a
non-French trademark for which there is no French equivalent
registered does not violate the Charter.3 Further, the
Court explicitly held that the OQLF could not impose any sanction
on a business solely for using a non-French trademark, including
any action relating to "francization" certificates.
As of the time of writing, the OQLF is reviewing the decision
and has not ruled out an appeal. The OQLF has 30 days to ask the
Quebec Crown Prosecutor to appeal the decision.
* With assistance from Albert Chan, Articling Student.
1 Magasins Best Buy Ltée et al. v. Québec
(Procureur général), 2014 QCCS 1427 (Apr. 9,
2 Notably, this announcement by the OQLF came about without
any change in the Charter, Regulation, or any other
3 In essence, the Court held that the pre-2011
interpretation of the Charter and Regulation was correct.
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