Note: As I started to write this post, which comments on the recent B.C. Court of Appeal decision in Vancouver Community College v. Vancouver Career College (Burnaby) Inc., I realized that it was going to be far too long for a single post. I have decided to divide the issues in two. This first post will focus on the official mark question and the issue of goodwill (the first element in a passing off action). A second post will later deal with issues of confusion and damages in passing off.
The BC Court of Appeal has recently ruled in a case that involves allegations of online trademark infringement. The parties raised issues around the purchase of keyword advertising, the use of trademarks in metatags and domain names, and the infringement of official marks. However, the Court’s decision ultimately addresses only a subset of these issues, and refers the question of official marks back to the trial court because of deficiencies in the factual record. The Court of Appeal’s decision focuses on passing off. In doing so, it touches on some questions unique to the internet context.
The dispute involves two educational institutions with very similar names and a shared acronym. The appellant Vancouver Community College is a post-secondary institution with official designation under B.C.’s College and Institute Act. It began its existence as the Vancouver City College in 1964, changing its name to Vancouver Community College in 1974. The respondent is a private career college called Vancouver Career College. It has operated under that name since 1997. Over time it has expanded its operations considerably. It is regulated under the province’s Private Training Act. Not only do both institutions share the identical acronym VCC, the only difference in their full names is with respect to the middle of the three words used in each. Both names are highly descriptive, and, as such, are inherently weak trademarks.
Because of its links to government, Vancouver Community College has taken advantage of the official marks provisions of the Trade-marks Act. These provisions allow a “public authority” to circumvent the usual requirements for trademark registration in order to protect a name or mark. The protection available for official marks is more extensive and more enduring than trademark protection, and the scheme is controversial. While a business would not be allowed to register a trademark that is entirely descriptive without being able to demonstrate that it had acquired secondary meaning, the official marks regime is indiscriminate when it comes to marks. The Vancouver Community College claimed ‘VCC’ as an official mark in January 1999 and also holds the official mark ‘Vancouver Community College’ since 2005. Both dates are later than the adoption by Vancouver Career College of its name – and quite possibly its adoption of the acronym VCC. Case law supports the view that the rather generous protection for official marks is only prospective; uses of the same or highly similar marks that predate the publication of the official marks are permitted to continue, although their use cannot expand to new products or services. The trial judge had found that the prior use of its own name and acronym by the Vancouver Career College insulated it from claims that it violated the Vancouver Community College’s official marks. The Court of Appeal ruled that the factual record was not sufficient to decide the issue. They sought additional facts as to the extent and nature of the use of each of the marks, whether the use by the respondent of the acronym had so expanded as to negate the defence of prior use, as well as facts relating to whether prior use had been abandoned by the time the official marks were published. In addition, because the Court of Appeal had concluded that the Career College’s prior use was tortious, it speculated as to whether the tortious adoption of a mark could count as prior use. It is an interesting question, but as I will discuss below, the Court of Appeal’s conclusions on the tort of passing off are not entirely satisfactory. At this point, it should be noted that there is some circularity around the issue of passing off and official marks. The Community College’s ability to obtain an official mark appears to bolster its claim to goodwill/reputation in the Court of Appeal’s reasoning. Yet official marks receive no scrutiny by the Registrar; they can be descriptive, generic, or confusing with existing marks – there really are few boundaries. As a result, the two analyses must be kept distinct. There may be a violation of rights in an official mark without there being a sufficient factual basis to support a finding of passing off. The threshold for the first is much lower than the second since all that needs to be shown is the existence of an official mark. For passing off it is necessary to establish sufficient goodwill/reputation – in other words, a plaintiff has to show that a mark distinguishes it as the source of particular goods or services.
A plaintiff in a passing off case must establish three elements: goodwill, a likelihood of confusion and a likelihood of damage. The first element requires the plaintiff to prove that they have acquired goodwill in a particular mark (whether it be a name, design, acronym, or some other indicium). In this case, the mark at issue is VCC which is an acronym for both Vancouver Community College and for Vancouver Career College. The law of passing off is not particularly generous to those who lack imagination or forethought in coming up with names. Names that are entirely descriptive make poor trademarks. The law is reluctant to provide a kind of monopoly over terms that simply describe a product or service. Both college names share “Vancouver” and “College” – both institutions are based in Vancouver and are of a kind typically referred to as “colleges”. The middle word is different but starts with the same letter, leading to two identical acronyms. As a result, the Community College’s acronym, on the face of it, is very weak. It deserves almost no protection from the law of passing off unless it is able to show that it has acquired such a level of distinctiveness through use by the Community College, that the public now associates VCC with its particular services. Further, even if it succeeds in showing acquired goodwill, it is not necessarily entitled to have the defendant’s use of its mark enjoined. The defendant might still be capable of using the same descriptive mark so long as, in doing so, it takes steps to ensure there is no confusion.
The trial judge had concluded that the Vancouver Community College did not have goodwill in the VCC mark. This was in part based on his finding that ‘VCC’ had been little used by the Community College between 1990 and 2013. The trial judge referred to the added level of distinctiveness required for an entirely descriptive mark as “secondary meaning”, and he was correct to do so. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal took issue with this approach. It opined that because what was at issue was the name of the college, it was not necessary to establish secondary meaning. Instead, it framed the question as whether the acronym VCC “carried sufficient distinctiveness in its primary sense to be recognized as designating the appellant and the educational services it provides.” (at para 40) This argument seems to either miss the point that the name of the college is entirely descriptive as well, or it conflates the name of the college with its status as a public institution. Unlike the B.C. University Act, which limits use of the term “university” to only specified institutions, the College and Institute Act gives no special protection to the term “college”. The Court of Appeal emphasized the public nature of the Community College and found that: “Its public character establishes a level of public awareness of the role it plays in the community” (at para 47). As a public institution, the Community College has access to official marks protection. Yet the huge boondoggle that is official marks protection should only count once – in the context of an official marks analysis – and should not be used to shape a passing off analysis that requires that marks be shown to be sufficiently distinctive to have acquired goodwill or reputation as a condition of their protection.
“Vancouver Community College” effectively describes a community college located in Vancouver. It is entirely descriptive. The acronym VCC similarly lacks inherent distinctiveness. In fact, it could stand for Vancouver Civic Centre, Vancouver Chamber of Commerce, Vancouver City Centre, or, in this case Vancouver Career College – to give just a few examples. The Court of Appeal’s decision sets a low threshold for goodwill/reputation in the face of a rather common acronym for a highly descriptive name. While it found sufficient evidence of an association by the public between VCC and the Community College, noting that the acronym was used in media reports, brochures, calendars and other materials, and it was the name of the SkyTrain station near the appellant’s campus. However, the extent of this association (or whether there is also a public association between VCC and the Career College) is not at all clear from the facts.
It may ultimately be that the Community College has acquired sufficient goodwill in ‘VCC’ to support an action in passing off. My difficulty with the resolution of this issue is with the road taken to get there. The Court of Appeal never acknowledged the weakness of either Vancouver Community College or VCC as marks in the context of the passing off analysis. While it is still possible to find that such a weak mark as VCC had acquired sufficient goodwill to provide a basis for an action in passing off, the inherent descriptiveness of the mark is relevant to the rest of the passing off analysis. For example, courts have found that minor differences in presentation of goods or services, or the use of disclaimers may sufficiently reduce any possibility of confusion between similar descriptive marks. The interweaving of the official marks issues with the passing off issues is perhaps to blame here. The Court of Appeal seems to be giving the Community College credit for being a public institution, and its burden of establishing goodwill seems to be lightened as a result. This approach ignores the very special (i.e., ‘anomalous ‘ or ‘problematic’) character of official marks.
Note: Part 2 of this comment is now available here.