Yet another decision regarding official marks highlights the need for reform of this privileged category of marks protected under the Trade-marks Act. In Terrace (City) v. Urban Distilleries Inc., two concurrent owners of the same official mark -- SPIRIT BEAR -- challenged the use by the defendant company of a mark that they claimed infringed their rights in the official mark.
The City of Terrace had requested that the Registrar of Trade-marks give public notice of its adoption and use of the SPIRIT BEAR mark on January 21, 2004. Almost 3 years later, the Kitsaoo Band Council had the Registrar of Trade-marks give public notice of its own adoption and use of the identical mark. This happened because there is simply no mechanism under the Trade-marks Act to evaluate official marks on their merits, or to limit them in cases where they would cause confusion with already existing official marks (or registered trademarks). An initial dispute between the City and the Band Council over their competing marks was resolved by an agreement entered into by the two under which they agreed to share the mark and to jointly licence its use.
The defendant company, Urban Distilleries, manufactures different alcoholic beverages. In 2010 it applied to register the trademark SPIRIT BEAR VODKA, but the City and the Band Council both opposed the application. Urban Distilleries abandoned the application, apparently because it lacked the funds to defend the opposition. Since January 2011, it has sold vodka and gin using the unregistered trademark SPIRIT BEAR.
In August 2013, the City and the Band sought an injunction against Urban Distilleries’ use of the SPIRIT BEAR mark. As part of the remedy they sought an order that Urban Distilleries destroy existing inventory and surrender its profits from the sale of products under the offending mark. Urban Distilleries responded by challenging the validity of the official marks. In particular, it argued that the marks had not been adopted and used prior to official notice being given, and it argued that neither the City nor the Band Council were public authorities within the meaning of subparagraph 9(1)(n)(iii) of the Trade-marks Act. They also argued that their use of the marks was not likely to mislead the public, and therefore was not infringing.
Justice Martineau disposed of the case by considering only the issue of adoption and use of the official marks. He noted that the law requires that such marks be adopted and used prior to the Registrar’s giving of public notice. There is a very low threshold for a finding of adoption. The threshold for “use” is similarly not high: “all that is required for use is that the public authority demonstrate that the official mark was made available for public display prior to publication.” (at para 11) However, he found that in this case, neither the City nor the Band Council could be found to have used the mark SPIRIT BEAR prior to public notice having been given.
In the case of the City, there was evidence that the words “spirit bear” were used on the City’s website. However, he noted that nothing on the site mentioned that these words were a mark associated with goods or services. Internal correspondence from that time regarding the use of “SPIRIT BEAR” was not considered to be sufficiently public. Further, the court found that it was not clear that the words were being used in this correspondence as a mark.
In the case of the Band Council, the court found there was no evidence of public use of the mark by the Band Council as a trademark. There was some evidence of a tourism company that used SPIRIT BEAR in one of its publications and in relation to several tours. However, as there was no evidence of any connection between the tourism company and the Band Council, the court found that this did not support an argument that the mark had been adopted and used by the Band Council at the time that public notice was given. Further, the court was not convinced that the words were used on their own as a trademark (as opposed to as a part of longer mark such as SPIRIT BEAR TOUR).
Because there was no evidence of adoption and use of the mark by either the City or the Band Council prior to public notice being given, the court found that both of the marks were unenforceable, and the suit for infringement must necessarily fail. Justice Martineau observed that the City and the Band Council, armed with appropriate evidence, could ask once again for new public notice to be given of the mark. However, any rights flowing from such a request would only be from the time that the public notice was given. Under the Trade-marks Act, marks that are identical to or confusing with official marks may continue to be used after official notice is given, so long as their use predates the public notice. This is the case for Urban Distilleries – it would be able to continue using its unregistered SPIRIT BEAR marks. However, if a new official mark were to be successfully sought by the City and/or the Band Council, this would freeze Urban Distilleries’ rights to what they were at the time of public notice. This means that Urban Distilleries would not be able to expand its line of offerings under the mark, nor would it be entitled to register its unregistered mark.
The co-existence of identical official marks, the improper granting of public notice, and the arbitrary effects on, in this case, a small business owner, all serve as indicators that the official marks regime is very much in need of reform. (For an earlier posting about another problematic official marks case see here). Private Members’ Bill C-611 is currently before Parliament (the bill is discussed here) and it offers concrete proposals for reform in this area. Let us hope it gets due consideration.