ECTA, the European Communities Trade Mark Association, appears to have broken ranks with the trade mark owners' organisations MARQUES and INTA over twin issues of (i) overcharging of applicants for Community trade marks and (ii) subsidising national trade mark granting authorities out of fees paid by applicants for Community trade marks.
"“How to better balance OHIM’s budget – the way forward”
The compromise solution as proposed at the last Joint Meeting of the Administrative Board and the Budget Committee of the OHIM
ECTA has now completed its analysis of the compromise solution and read with interest the comments expressed by Marques and INTA, as well as those formulated by BusinessEurope.
While there are some elements of commonality between ECTA’s assessment of the compromise solution and some of the ideas expressed in all three papers, ECTA’s
overall position differs.
The integration and development of the European Union (EU) internal market has been, and of course still is, one of the most important goals for the EU. The harmonization of national trade mark laws as well as the creation of the CTM system have been quite efficient instruments to assist the EU in reaching this goal. Particularly the latter has paved the way, or at least lowered the barriers, for a real and efficient free movement of goods all over the EU.
However, while freedom and efficiency undoubtedly serve the interests of industry as well as of EU consumers, the degree of success of the CTM has raised and continues to raise some concerns and certainly one of them is how to handle the budget surplus generated by the system.
It is ECTA’s belief that balancing OHIM’s budget is not a goal or an end in itself but rather a collateral result which may be achieved in many ways. The alternatives would be multiple and could go from lowering substantially OHIM fees to increasing the human resources item of OHIM’s budget.
However, ECTA doubts that any such option would constitute a proper solution to the problem because the real issue is not how to balance the budget, but rather which way is the most appropriate in a comprehensive framework which takes into account the peculiarities of the overall EU trade mark system characterized by the overlapping of two different and independent layers of protection, i.e. national systems and CTM system.
Accordingly, it is ECTA’s view that balancing the budget and handling the surplus cannot be properly dealt with unless by a solution which is first and foremost prompted by the need to create a proper balance between CTM and national trade marks.
There are different reasons why ECTA believes that it is necessary to adopt such a policy. While this paper is not the proper venue to deeply dwell on the particulars ECTA will offer some considerations that represent the views and the input of its membership, which encompasses trade mark professionals in industry and in private practice.
The starting point is that a proper balance between CTM and national trade marks helps small and middle seized enterprises (SMEs) within the EU and benefits the system as a whole.
It is quite apparent that the CTM is particularly suited to those large companies whose activities encompass several or most EU member states. On the contrary, a national trade mark registration, or few more in the relevant markets of reference are, in most cases, more than enough for an average SME whose output does not and will likely never justify a market horizon wider than that. The fact is that in the EU, the industrial fabric is by and large composed more of the latter (SMEs) than the former (large entities).
While some overlapping is unavoidable, i.e. both systems are used to protect the same trade marks for the same markets, the reality is that both routes are necessary and perform a vital role in order for the European trade mark system to function well.
At the moment it seems, however, as though the CTM system is slowly but firmly eroding and endangering the existence of the national systems, mainly as a result of financial considerations. This is due to the simple realisation that by one CTM an enterprise obtains protection in all 27 member states at a fraction of what it would otherwise cost.
Therefore, on the one hand, many companies who would not need a CTM, apply nonetheless for it because it is already a cheaper alternative to national registrations. On the other hand, larger and richer companies pursue aggressive registration strategies which, aided by the perhaps now too long 5 years’ use period, ultimately narrow more and more the number of available signs, and effectively stifle competition because of the implied threat of litigation which lies in any registered sign, even though not yet in use.
The result is that while to any single SME, the long-term economic effects of choosing a CTM over a national registration may seem minuscule, because they consider one CTM at the time, looking at the whole rather than at the part, it seems evident that the multiplying effect of these individual choices puts a formidable stress on the EU system of protection of IP rights and ultimately increases the overall costs in an exponential way.
With a Register so overfilled with CTMs, many of which may not be in use, clearing a new trade mark is more and more expensive which means that only large and financially rich companies may afford them, which also means that SMEs basically risk the future economic viability of their goods/services when they register a CTM upon the chance that no one along the way will sue them. However, the situation is not favourable for large companies either, since they must face increasing costs which are in turn passed, ultimately, to consumers.
In addition, this phenomenon would only be exacerbated by the proposed reduction of the CTM fees to 1,000 Euro, equivalent to a cost of 37.04 Euro per country for the first 10 years of validity of the registration, which is much lower than the current corresponding fee in any of the 27 countries of the EU, and the more so if you take into account that for up to three classes, the cost is the same.
Any trade mark administrator of any SME interested in registering a trade mark would have extreme difficulty in explaining to his/her management why he/she chose to file more expensive national registrations when he/she could have filed for a CTM.
ECTA wonders why in order to address or treat/cure what is, after all, a benign problem like that of a budget surplus (a constant deficit would be a serious problem), the solution proposed might have the effect of increasingly challenging the viability and survival of national registrations and ultimately jeopardizing the CTM system.
ECTA is of the opinion that the most useful approach is that of optimizing the reallocation of resources among Trade mark Offices. ECTA understands that one of the agreed proposals to address the budget surplus is by allocation of some of it to the national offices.
This compromise solution is agreeable to ECTA if encompassed in a policy aimed at maintaining a reasonable balance between the CTM fees and the national TM fees to the ultimate benefit of the users. To encourage this result, ECTA suggests that part of the surplus is deposited in a stabilization fund which would be transferred, proportionally, to national offices in exchange for a reduction of their TM filing fees.
This solution would benefit on the one hand national offices, which could see the number of national applications increase, and on the other it would benefit SMEs, which would have a cheaper and competitive alternative to consider. Ultimately, this continuous transfer of resources should stabilize the competition between the two systems as a whole and equilibrium would be reached to the benefit of the whole trade marks system in Europe.
It is important, however, to ensure that any transfer of OHIM surplus to national offices be utilized by the national offices and not for other purposes within each member states and therefore it should be clearly contemplated that the surplus must be utilized firstly to decrease national fees and secondly to enhance quality of the services offered by national offices so as to foster innovation all over the EU.
Finally, ECTA is not against a reasonable reduction of OHIM fees. However, for the above-mentioned reasons, it considers that a possible reduction of OHIM fees should not focus exclusively on application and registration fees, but preferably extend to a number of official fees, including renewal fees and particularly opposition and appeal fees, which are the most advantageous alternative to costly and time-consuming Court proceedings.
ECTA also wonders about the actual advisability of consolidating CTM fees in one payment. There are practical considerations such as that the current system, with two separate payments – the initial application fee and subsequent registration fee – is more equitable for applicants, in particular for SMEs. Given the difficulties and the costs of clearing new applications prior to filing, many applicants simply file their CTMs and wait to learn whether or not oppositions are filed and if they are, many simply withdraw and abandon the mark or convert into national applications. With the proposed system, the SMEs would have to pay the full fee which would be wasted in the above scenario. In addition, it does not seem fair that a trade mark whose registration is granted and remains valid for 10 years should pay the same fee as a trade mark whose registration is refused.
A change in the relative proportions of the application fee and the registration fee might nevertheless be acceptable, proportionally increasing the registration fee for the grant of the registration/right and reducing the initial application fee. This system would balance the cost/benefit equation and make applications more attractive, while at the same time trying to ensure that only trade marks whose use is actually of interest would be validated.