Friday, 6 June 2014

Moroccanoil v Miracleoil: no passing off

Moroccanoil Israel Ltd v Aldi Stores Ltd [2014] EWHC 1686 (IPEC) (29 May 2014)  is a decision of Judge Hacon in what I still prefer to think of as the Patents County Court - although I need to get over that, as the change of name reflects also a change of substance. The somewhat oxymoronically-named claimant sued the supermarket for passing off when it introduced a hair oil (competing with the claimant's MOROCCANOIL hair oil) under the name ‘Miracle Oil’.
What's the problem? Surely the names are far enough apart? Well, it wasn't just the name: there was a word-only CTM, but claims relating to that were dropped early on for fairly obvious reasons. In the passing-off claim, the claimant alleged that the get-up and name of Aldi’s product were, in combination, too similar to those of their product. Just look at the photos in the annexes to the judgment! A substantial
number of consumers would mistake Miracle Oil for Moroccanoil, or assume that they shared a common manufacturer or that there was some other trade connection between them.

The evidence showed that the name ‘Moroccanoil’ was distinctive of the claimant's product in the UK: but the get-up without the name could never have become distinctive because it had never been before the public on its own. It was not a Jif Lemon type of case in which the public would not notice the brand name - although clearly it was an attempt to protect get-up rather than product name. The name was the important element, so that was where the goodwill in the business would be found, although the get-up also played a  part.

There was nothing to show that members of the public might assume that Miracle Oil and Moroccanoil were the same thing, that they came from the same manufacturer, or that they were otherwise commercially linked, for example by a licence. Even if any members of the public would be confused there would be too few of  them for the claimant's goodwill to be damaged.

The defendant had intended that Miracle Oil would bring Moroccanoil to mind. The judge considered it had succeeded. That it had done did not make it passing off. There might be problem with rights in the design, and the public might think the way the packaging of the one brought the other to mind to be cheeky, but that wasn't unlawful. There would be no relevant false assumption in the mind of the purchasers, not even initial interest confusion (which I thought didn't exist in European Union trade mark law anyway). Without evidence of a misrepresentation the claim failed, illustrating (if illustration were needed) of the impotence of passing off law to protect against supermarket own-brands. Perhaps copyright and designs law (especially if there had been a registered design) would have filled the gap, and a trade mark registration for the particular colour of the label would have been pretty conclusive, but on the facts of the case these items were not in the claimant's armoury. It shows how important it is, in this day and age, to ensure you collect the widest possible range of intellectual property rights - if the claimants here thought a word trade mark was going to do the job, they were sadly mistaken, and Aldi could easily what Americans might call an end run round the one distinctive mark the claimants did have.

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