After years of neglect, trademark law reform is now all the rage in Canada. Presently, two government bills propose major amendments to the Trade-marks Act – those in the Budget Implementation Act have proven highly controversial; those in Bill C-8 would introduce major changes, although these are less controversial. Yesterday, Liberal MP Geoff Regan introduced a private member’s bill, Bill C-611, which has as its goal the overhaul of official marks under the Trade-marks Act.
Interestingly enough, neither of the government’s trademark law reform bills tackles official marks, notwithstanding that the Report of the Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology in March 2013 on the Intellectual Property Regime in Canada recommended that something be done about these marks. Specifically, the report stated:
The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada introduce legislation which amends parts of the Trade-marks Act dealing with official marks to restrict the scope of official marks to important national government symbols and to narrow the definition of public authorities to avoid stifling innovation and distorting markets.
Official marks are a rather unique Canadian creation. Essentially, they allow “public authorities” to bypass the normal procedures (including all of the checks and balances present in the Act) for obtaining a trademark. Instead of applying for a trademark – which is then examined and opened for opposition to insure that it is indeed registrable and does not trample on the trademark rights of others – a “public authority” need only ask the Registrar of Trademarks to give public notice of its adoption and use of an official mark. There are no limits to official marks – they can be identical to or confusing with existing marks, and they can be generic, descriptive or deceptively misdescriptive. Further, unlike regular trademarks which can expire if the registration is not renewed, or which can be lost for non-use, official marks are potentially perpetual.
One of the reasons for the creation of the category of official marks, was perhaps, to save governments from the costs of registering and maintaining trademarks in relation to their various programs and services. While this might be an acceptable rationale for government programs and services in the strict sense, it makes less sense for government entities engaged in the marketing of alcohol and gaming to be exempt from the traditional rules (and checks and balances) of the trademark system.
In addition, until the Federal Court began its attempts to reign in official marks in the early 2000’s, the concept of a “public authority” was rather vague, leading to a flood of bogus official marks. And once public notice is declared, there is no mechanism in place to permit an easy removal of the mark – judicial review must be sought in the Federal Court of the Registrar’s decision to give public notice. This places a costly onus on businesses or other entities that run up against rogue official marks. For example, the Canadian Jewish Congress was obliged to go to court to reverse the decision to allow a U.S.-based evangelical church with a mission to convert Jews to Christianity to hold an official mark for the menorah. In 2005 I wrote an article about a battle between a private company, the Bluenose Heritage Preservation Trust Society and a Nova Scotia business over licensing fees that the Society sought to charge for the use of the name and image of the iconic Nova Scotia schooner. The Society had obtained official marks related to the Bluenose, notwithstanding that it was difficult to see how it qualified as a public authority. The litigation came to an end when the Province of Nova Scotia intervened. The Province subsequently sought to have notice given for its own Bluenose official marks. It is an illustration of the multiple defects of this regime that if you search the trademarks register you will find listed identical official marks held both by the Society and by the Province of Nova Scotia.
It would be easy to go on and on about the problems of official marks and about the problematic exercise of rights in such marks – there are many examples that can be drawn upon. (Do you remember a not too distant news story about a young Nova Scotia musician pursued by the Mint because his album cover featured Canadian pennies (which are official marks of the Mint)? Do you remember Canadian pennies?) But the point here is to discuss the new bill introduced to reform the official marks regime. I should state from the outset that I was consulted on the drafting of this Bill (along with my colleague Andrea Slane). The goal of the exercise was to reform the official marks regime. I note that a good argument could still be made for its wholesale abolition.
The main goal of the proposed reforms is to address some of the regimes key deficiencies. First, the scope of official marks is limited – both in terms of who can get them, and for what purposes. “Public authority” is defined – even more narrowly than in the definition adopted by the Federal Court of Appeal to limit access to official marks. The objective is to limit official marks only to those public authorities with the strongest links to government. Official marks are also available only to public authorities for their names, emblems or logos, or in relation to their programs or services. Access to official marks by universities is limited only to Canadian universities (under the current law, universities in any country of the world can (and do) obtain official marks.)
A second feature of the bill is that it provides for a process by which objection can be made to the public notice given by the Registrar of the official mark. This is meant to be a more expeditious and cheaper procedure than seeking judicial review of a mark. It also introduces other grounds for objection to the official mark, including that it might have a serious adverse effect on the owner of an existing trademark, that it is a generic term, or that it is otherwise not in the public interest.
A third feature sets a term of 10 years of protection for official marks. This protection can be renewed by the public authority – but if it is not, then the mark is no longer protected.
The bill aims to do something that has long needed to be done – it seeks to curtail access to official marks, to place some limits on the marks themselves so as to lessen their impact on other trademark holders, and to provide a mechanism whereby official mark deadwood can be removed. These are certainly important objectives. It is to be hoped that the bill will at least serve to put an option on the table for public debate, with a view to achieving much-needed reform in this area.