Italy – The “cross-market” protection of well-known brands

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According to the article 20 of the Italian Code of Intellectual Property, the owner of a trademark has the right to prevent third parties, unless consent is given, from using:

  1. any sign which is identical to the trademark for goods or services which are identical to those for which the trademark is registered;
  2. any sign that is identical or similar to the registered trademark, for goods or services that are identical or similar, where due to the identity or similarity between the goods or services, there exists a likelihood of confusion on the part of the public, that can also consist of a likelihood of association of the two signs;
  3. any sign which is identical with or similar to the registered trademark in relation to goods or services which are not similar, where the registered trademark has a reputation in the Country and where use of that sign without due cause takes unfair advantage of, or is detrimental to, the distinctive character or the repute of the trademark.

Similar provisions can be found in art. 9, n. 2 of the EU Regulation 2017/1001 on the European Union Trademark, even if in such a case the provision concerns trademarks that have a reputation.

The first two hypotheses concern the majority of the brands and the conflict between two signs that are identical for identical products or services (sub a), so-called double identity, or between two brands that are identical or similar for identical or similar products or services, if due to the identity or similarity between the signs and the identity or affinity between the products or services, there may be a risk of confusion for the public (sub b).

By “affinity” we mean a product similarity between the products or services (for example between socks and yarns) or a link between the needs that the products or services intended to satisfy (as often happens in the fashion sector, where it is usual for example that the same footwear manufacturer also offers belts for sale). It is not by chance that, although the relevance is administrative and the affinity is not defined, at the time of filing the application for registration of a trademark, the applicant must indicate the products and / or services for which he wants to obtain the protection choosing among assets and services present in the International Classification of Nice referred to the related Agreement of 1957 (today at the eleventh edition issued on 01.01.2019). Indeed, following the leading IP Translator case (Judgment of the EU Court of Justice of 19 June 2012, C-307/10), the applicant is required to identify, within each class, the each good or service for which he invokes the protection, so as to correctly delimit the protection of the brand.

Beyond the aforementioned ordinary marks, there are some signs that, over time, have acquired a certain notoriety for which, as envisaged by the hypothesis sub c), the protection also extends to the products and / or services that are not similar (even less identical) to those for which the trademark is registered.

The ratio underlying the aforementioned rule is to contrast the counterfeiting phenomenon due to the undue appropriation of merits. In the fashion sector, for example, we often see counterfeit behaviors aimed at exploiting parasitically the commercial start-up of the most famous brands in order to induce the consumer to purchase the product in light of the higher qualities – in the broad sense – of the product.

The protection granted by the regulation in question is therefore aimed at protecting the so-called “selling power” of the trademark, understood as a high sales capacity due to the evocative and suggestive function of the brand, also due to the huge advertising investments made by the owner of the brand itself, and able to go beyond the limits of the affinity of the product sector to which the brand belongs.

In fact, we talk about “ultra-market” protection – which is independent of the likelihood of confusion referred to in sub-letter b) – which can be invoked when certain conditions are met.

First of all, the owner has the burden of proving that his own sign is well-known, both at a territorial level and with reference to the interested public.

But what does reputation mean and what are the assumptions needed? In the silence of the law, the case law, with the famous General Motors ruling (EC Court of Justice, 14 September 1999, C-375/97) defined it as “the sign’s aptitude to communicate a message to which it is possible linking up also in the absence of a confusion on the origin”, confirming that the protection can be granted if the trademark is known by a significant part of the public interested in the products or services it distinguishes.”

According to the Court, among the parameters that the national court must take into account in determining the degree of the reputation of a mark are market share, intensity, geographical scope and duration of its use, as well as the investments made by the company to promote it.

Of course, the greater the reputation of the brand, the greater the extension of the protection to include less and less similar product sectors.

The relevant public, the Court continues, “is that interested in this trademark, that is, according to the product or service placed on the market, the general public or a more specialized public, for example, a specific professional environment”.

Furthermore, the reputation must also have a certain territorial extension and, to this purpose, the aforesaid decision specified that the requirement met if the reputation is spread in a substantial part of the EU States, taking into account both the size of the area geographical area concerned as well as the number of persons present therein.

For the EU trademark, the Court of Justice, with the decision Pago International (EC Court of Justice, 6 October 2009, C ‑ 301/07) ruled that the mark must be known “by a significant part of the public interested in the products or services marked by the trademark, in a substantial part of the territory of the Community” and that, taking into account the circumstances of the specific case, “the entire territory of a Member State” – in this case it was Austria – “can be considered substantial part of the territory of the Community”. This interpretation, indeed, is a consequence of the fact that the protection of an EU trademark extends to the whole territory of the European Union.

In order to obtain the protection of the renowned brand, there is no need for the similarity between the signs to create a likelihood of confusion. However, there must be a connection (a concept taken up several times by European and national jurisprudence) between the two marks in the sense that the later mark must evoke the earlier one in the mind of the average consumer.

In order to be able to take advantage of the “cross-market” protection, the aforementioned rules require the trademark owner to be able to provide adequate evidence that the appropriation of the sign by third parties constitutes an unfair advantage for them or, alternatively, that damages the owner himself. Of course, the alleged infringer shall be able to prove his right reason that, as such, can constitute a suitable factor to win the protection granted.

Moreover, the owner of the trademark is not obliged to prove an actual injury, as it is sufficient, according to the case law, “future hypothetical risk of undue advantage or prejudice“, although serious and concrete.

The damage could concern the distinctiveness of the earlier trademark and occurs, “when the capability of the trademark to identify the products or services for which it was registered and is used is weakened due to the fact that the use of the later trademark causes the identity of the earlier trade mark and of the ‘corresponding enterprise in the public mind”.

Likewise, the prejudice could also concern the reputation and it occurs when the use for the products or services offered by the third party can be perceived by the public in such a way that the power of the well-known brand is compromised. This occurs both in the case of an obscene or degrading use of the earlier mark, and when the context in which the later mark is inserted is incompatible with the image that the renowned brand has built over time, perhaps through expensive marketing campaigns.

Finally, the unfair advantage occurs when the third party parasitically engages its trademark with the reputation or distinctiveness of the renowned brand, taking advantage of it.

One of the most recent examples of cross-market protection has involved Barilla and a textile company for having marketed it cushions that reproduced the shapes of some of the most famous biscuits, marking them with the same brands first and then, after a cease and desist letter, with the names of the same biscuits with the addition of the suffix “-oso” (“Abbraccioso”, “Pandistelloso”, etc.). Given the good reputation acquired by the brands of the well-known food company, its brands have been recognized as worthy of the aforementioned protection extended to non-related services and products. The Court of Milan, in fact, with a decision dated January 25, 2018, ruled, among other things, that the conduct perpetrated by the textile company, attributing to its products the merits of those of Barilla, has configured a hypothesis of unfair competition parasitic for the appropriation of merits, pursuant to art. 2598 c.c. The reputation of the word and figurative marks registered by Barilla, in essence, has allowed protecting even non-similar products, given the undue advantage deriving from the renown of the sign of others.

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Giacomo Gori
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