A recent ruling by the Court of Session in Edinburgh highlights the difficulties businesses face registering popular words and phrases as trademarks .
Tartan Army Ltd v Sett GmbH and Others  CSOH 22 concerned a long-running dispute between retailer Tartan Army Limited (“TAL”) and a football magazine publisher, Alba Football Fans Limited (“AFF”).
TAL registered EU and UK trademarks for their trademark ‘Tartan Army’ for their merchandise, clothing and other products in 1996.
TAL accused AFF of passing off, claiming that AFF infringed their rights by publishing ‘The Famous Tartan Army Magazine’ aimed at Scottish football fans.
TAL requested an order prohibiting AFF from infringing its rights – along with destruction of all promotional and printed material bearing the ‘Tartan Army’ trademark.
AFF counterclaimed that TAL’s trademarks were ‘invalid’, as the phrase ‘Tartan Army’ had widely been used as a collective noun for Scottish football fans since the 1970s. AFF claimed that TAL were attempting to “commandeer and monopolise well‑known words or phrases which they did not invent and which had a very well‑known and widespread meaning which was not distinctive of trade origin”. AFF’s supporting witness statements included a number of well-known football personalities in Scotland, including former Scotland national team manager Craig Brown, commentator Archie MacPherson and journalist Chic Young.
Lord Glennie, IP judge in the Court of Session rejected:-
- AFF’s challenge that TAL’s trade marks were invalid.
He said: “The fact that the term is often used as a badge of allegiance, in this case to the Scotland football team and its fans, does not prevent it being registered as a trademark”.
- TAL’s claims that AFF was liable for trademark infringement and passing off.
He said the title of AFF’s publication was not identical to the ‘The Tartan Army’ mark and that, despite being similar, TAL had failed to show there was a “likelihood of confusion on the part of the public” between AFF’s use of the mark and its own. “The evidence does not suggest that anyone becoming aware of the Magazine would associate it with TAL or any of TAL’s products bearing the words Tartan Army. Nor does it seem to me to be likely that there would be any such confusion.”
- TAL’s argument that AFF had been “free-riding” on the reputation of its mark.
TAL failed to show that their trademark had a reputation in the UK which had been taken unfair advantage of by AFF. Lord Glennie said: “Certainly TAL’s trademark is distinctive ‑ otherwise it would not be validly registered ‑ but I do not accept that it has a particularly strong distinctive character. There was no substantial body of evidence to suggest that it was widely known amongst the mass of the Scotland football supporters. Even if it were more widely known than it is, the lack of confusion is a factor of some importance. Unless there were a possibility of confusion, or perhaps more accurately association, between the two marks, there would be little risk of diversion, tarnishment or free‑riding.”
Lord Glennie ruled that AFF’s popular magazine did not infringe the trade mark of retailer Tartan Army as football supporters and consumers would be unlikely to “associate” AFF’s magazine with the merchandise sold by TAL:
“I consider that most potential customers or consumers, being Scotland fans or, to put it another way, members of the tartan army, would understand the name of the Magazine to refer to them (and the Magazine to be for them) rather than as a reference to TAL or its products….In those circumstances the claim in passing off fails“.
Lord Glennie found that there was no infringement nor passing off and ruled to reduce the scope of TAL’s trademark rights after determining that there had been no “genuine use” of the trademarks for some classes of goods, including flags, bunting and banners, and wall hangings.
What does this mean for your business?
The ruling shows that well-known words and phrases can be registered as trademarks. However, businesses wishing to make use of those marks cannot assume that those common terms are in the public domain and free to exploit.
Businesses need to be able to show that the public link the use of their mark with their brand. However, there is an inherent challenge in doing so where the words concerned are in common use and have broader associations than to just the goods or services for which the trademark is registered. Without that link being established, businesses are unlikely to be able to show that there is a reputation in their trademark which has been sullied by others’ use, or that they have sufficient goodwill built-up to sustain claims of passing off.