Thursday, 6 October 2016

Should've refused it

So the Trade Marks Registry has accepted Specsavers' application number 3175246 to register SHOULD'VE and (even more bizarrely) SHOULDVE (series of two: see here). And of course in line with modern (absolutist) practice it covers several classes of goods and services, some of them fair enough but others (retail services, printed matter), unqualified by reference to any particular sector, far too wide - tending towards patent-type monopoly protection over an ordinary English expression.

It's not as if Specsavers BV were short of protection. They have EU trade mark no 4694551 already, for SHOULD'VE GONE TO SPECSAVERS. Even taking account of the lunacy of Brexit, or "Eurocide" as I saw it called in The Guardian this morning, which will require proprietors of EU trade marks to obtain (by some mechanism about which we are yet to be told) separate UK protection, this new application would be wholly unnecessary in any truly rational trade mark system. Indeed, if the system worked rationally rather than promoting trade mark fetishism, the application would have been rejected out of hand. Not only can the word - whether correctly punctuated or not - never be distinctive enough to function as a trade mark: the applicant simply isn't using it as one. It is not the trade mark. It is one of the four or five words (depending on how you count contractions) which together comprise their trade mark. Alone, it should not have received more than a couple of nanoseconds' attention from the Registry.

I don't criticise the applicant for trying to get protection if the law will give it: nor do I criticise the agents who filed the application, who are obliged to serve their clients to the best of their ability. Specsavers has shareholders who will demand the strongest possible protection for its assets, including trade marks. I will however criticise both the applicant and the agent for making a series of two marks by adding an incorrect variant - especially given that, if an infringer used it, a judge would surely hold it so similar to the correctly-punctuated contraction as to cause a likelihood of confusion. In fact, the apostrophe might even be considered to be an insignificant detail which would not be noticed by the average consumer, so SHOULDVE would be treated as identical with SHOULD'VE. Given that "its" and "it's" are commonly treated as identical, that appalling possibility seems very real.

I do however criticise the law, which should never countenance granting exclusive rights like this. It panders to the wishes of the absolutists, who want the strongest possible protection for all their intellectual property, and fails to strike a balance between their interests and those of new entrants trying to find a trade mark which they can use, and ultimately of consumers too. The EU had an opportunity recently to make some repairs to a broken system, but with this acceptance the Trade Marks Registry has (IMHO) broken it a bit more.

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