Thorough search averts lawsuit

For the London Free Press -  July 4, 2011 - Read this on Canoe You have designed the perfect logo for your business. Before investing more time and money in using and promoting your new logo, you want to make sure you have the right to use this trademark for a long time and you’re not infringing someone else’s existing trademark.

You start by doing a search of existing registered trademarks in the database of trademark registrations on the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (CIPO) website.

The search doesn’t turn up any similar marks relating to the wares and services you provide, so you file a trademark application. A few months later a CIPO examiner approves your application. CIPO then publishes your application in the Trademarks Journal to allow the public an opportunity to oppose it.

Two months pass without a challenge to your application and the trademark is successfully registered.

You are now the first person to register that trademark in Canada for your wares and services. You now have exclusive Canada-wide rights to use this logo for the next 15 years. Or do you?

In a recent decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, the registered trademarks of a retirement company in Ottawa were invalidated because of the likelihood of confusion with similar unregistered trademarks of a company in Calgary that had used them before the Ottawa company.

The Trademarks Act prohibits the registration of a trademark that is confusing with a trademark previously used in Canada, regardless of whether that trademark has been registered.

However, some people thought the test for confusion took into account the geographic region of the operations associated with the trademark. For example, if a Calgary-based retirement residence did not operate in Ontario, its trademarks would not be considered confusing with trademarks of a retirement residence in Ottawa.

The Supreme Court in Masterpiece v Alvida determined the Trademarks Act affords Canada-wide rights even if a trademark is only used locally.

The test is based on the assumption both trademarks under consideration are used in the same area. It was irrelevant the operations of the companies were in different provinces.

The companies had similar trademarks in the same industry, so the trademarks were deemed confusing. Since the unregistered trademark was used prior to registration and use of the registered mark, the registration was expunged.

This demonstrates importance of conducting searches for unregistered trademarks before filing a trademark application. It may be difficult to locate every potentially confusing unregistered trademark throughout Canada, but search services are available that perform reasonably comprehensive searches.

The case also demonstrates the usefulness of registering trademarks as early as possible. In this case, if the Calgary company had registered its marks when it first used them, it would have prevented the Ottawa company from registering its mark, thus avoiding a costly and time-consuming court battle.