Friday, 22 July 2011

After the Hundred Years War - the War of the Roses

And it seems to have ended in a draw. A bit early to say, as I can't read 46 pages, 164 paragraphs, of a judgment that quickly, but cutting to the chase it looks like honours are pretty even. Samuel Smith Old Brewery (Tadcaster) v Lee (t/a Cropton Brewery) [2011] EWHC 1879 (Ch) (22 July 2011) is a trade mark infringement and passing off case. The protagonists are two Yorkshire breweries, Sam's being the oldest in the county (established in 1758, according to Wikipedia: now it might be more accurate to call the company Humphrey's for short, as Humphrey Smith is joint managing director, with his brother Oliver, and Humphrey seems to be the target of many critical comments) while Cropton (named after the village in which the brewery is located) is a relative newcomer having been established in 1984. Both make that once-rare thing, real ale, although I imagine that Sam (whose products I have found as far away as Seattle) makes considerably more of it.

Sam has a number of registered trade marks, one of which comprises a stylised white rose design, others of which include a white rose. Hardly a matter for surprise, in Yorkshire: for those unfamiliar with historic rivalries in the north of England (relatively speaking - we are talking about the area south of the Tees here) the white rose is the symbol of the House of York, and the red rose of the House of Lancaster. The Wars of the Roses speak volumes about the cordiality of relations between them.

These latter-day all-white Wars of the Roses erupted when Cropton began brewing two beers which clearly announced their Yorksire origins. There's Yorkshire Bitter, a bottled beer made for Marks & Spencer, and a draught and bottled beer which it called Yorkshire Warrior, profits from which go to the Yorkshire Regiment Benevolent Fund. All well and good - very commendable - but the white rose featured on both labels. The Warrior label incorporated the regimental colours of the Yorkshire Regiment, which - unsurprisingly - featured a white rose.

There was also a groundless threats claim or two.

Arnold J, who might justifiably be nicknamed Solomon after this effort, held that: 
i) Cropton Brewery has not infringed the Trade Mark by use of the Yorkshire Bitter label;
ii) Cropton Brewery has infringed the Trade Mark pursuant to Article 5(1)(b) by use of the Yorkshire Warrior label;
iii) Cropton Brewery has a defence in respect of its infringement of the Trade Mark by use of the Yorkshire Warrior label under Article 6(1)(b) in respect of the period to the end of October 2009, but not subsequently;
iv) Samuel Smith’s claim for passing off succeeds in relation to the Yorkshire Warrior label, but not the Yorkshire Bitter label;
v) The letter dated 10  December 2007 is an unjustifiable threat but Cropton Brewery is not “a person aggrieved” by it, while the letter dated 7 July 2010 is not a threat of infringement proceedings.
It all brings to mind an earlier - much earlier - trade mark case from the same part of the country: YORK TM [1982]. FSR 111, the last word (until the 1938 Act was repealed) on the unsuitability of geographical names as trade marks. Of course, a white rose might not be seen as a geographical indication, but this stylised design says "York" (House, city or county of) pretty clearly to a large number of people. A white rose is, at least, highly descriptive of anything connected with that part of the world, almost as much as the word - although there was no challenge to the validity of the key trade mark. Does this smack of absolutism - a trade mark bully trying to monopolise a sign that should be available for others to use too? Perhaps: and the excuse that the directors of a company have a duty to their shareholders to take advantage of what trade mark law offers doesn't apply here in quite the same way - in fact, the claimant is a private unlimited company.

The Yorkshire Bitter dispute was settled when Marks & Spencer agreed to change the label to remove the rose - which, when first approached by the claimant, they had argued was a very different white rose anyway. It was the claimant's first approach to M&S that was the first threat complained of. The Warrior dispute was decided by the fact that the defendant thought it had the permission needed to use the regimental badge - but the regiment itself had no authority to grant permission, so once that came out and the permission that had wrongly been given was withdrawn any further use became an infringement.

Well, still much to get out of reading this judgment - and I'll reassess the outcome: not as equal as I thought. Samuel Smith seems to have got just about everything it wanted in the litigation. In the court of public opinion, though, the comments I linked to above show that it has lost big time, and I'll certainly be choosing alternatives to their products in the future - as if that'll bother them.

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