For the half-year to 31 December 2014, the IPKat's regular team is supplemented by contributions from guest bloggers Rebecca Gulbul, Lucas Michels and Marie-Andrée Weiss.

Regular round-ups of the previous week's blogposts are kindly compiled by Alberto Bellan.

Monday, 12 March 2012

The Ultimate watchmakers case: passing off leads to a ticking off

Yes, the cat is woolly , but ...
Currently without a wristwatch, this Kat has discovered how sociable it can be to discover what the time is by asking everyone around if they can kindly tell him. He has never been an expert in watches, which are much of a muchness to him.  After reading Woolley and Timesource v Ultimate Products Ltd and Henley's Clothing Ltd [2012] EWHC 339 (Ch) he is even more convinced that this is the case, since they even seem to have almost the same brand names,  This case doesn't seem to have made the BAILII database yet, though the IPKat has heard all about it from his friends at Collyer Bristow who acted for the successful claimants and who have kindly supplied him with this copy.

Woolley, whose business background was in the watch import and trade sales business, was the founder and managing director of Timesource, a company which since its inception in 2004 developed a successful business and reputation in the sale of watches. These watches were marketed under brand names, the most successful of which was HENLEY -- a brand that Timesource also used for a few other items and which was registered as a Community trade mark in classes 9, 14 and 18.

The second defendant company, Henley's Clothing Ltd (HCL), was a company that sold clothing and accessories wholesale, by mail order and online under the name HENLEYS.  Ultimate, the first defendant, imported and sold wholesale some 4,000 different products including, under licence from HCL, watches and jewellery under the HENLEYS name.  Initially Ultimate had taken a licence from Woolley but, having "enjoyed notable growth", terminated the licence on the basis that it was no longer necessary. The largest customer for Ultimate's HENLEYS watches was Argos -- which ran a chain of shops and had a substantial online business but which was not a Timesource customer.

Woolley and Timesource sued for trade mark infringement and passing off, seeking injunctive and other relief in respect of the use of a mark which was very similar to its HENLEY mark (the trade mark claims were stayed,  the defendants -- who have their own UK application pending -- having applied to remove Woolley's registration; a decision from OHIM is awaited) and the court had to decide whether the passing off claim had been established. According to the claimants, Timesource had substantial goodwill in its HENLEY watches and the name HENLEY was the attractive force which brought in custom. Since there was no material difference between the appearance of the watches of Timesource and Ultimate, it was argued that the damage inflicted by the alleged passing off was the deflection of potential customers for HENLEY watches (thus, for example, Argos would not want to stock HENLEY watches if it already stocked the HENLEYS range). A loss in terms of royalty payments was also sought. It was also maintained that the sale of HENLEYS watches increasingly diluted the value of the exclusivity attached to the HENLEY brand. However, there was no actual evidence of damage.

Henley watch
Sitting as a Deputy Judge of the Chancery Division, England and Wales, Robert Englehart QC first summarised the basis for a successful passing-off action. In principle, mere confusion between similarly-named products was insufficient to support a successful passing off action -- a misrepresentation was required. As is well known, a claimant in an action for passing must prove three elements (i) goodwill or reputation attached to his goods or services in the mind of the purchasing public, (ii) a misrepresentation to the public, whether or not intentional, leading or likely to lead the public to believe that goods or services offered by him were the goods or services of the claimant, and (iii) real or likely damage caused by the erroneous belief engendered by the  misrepresentation that the source of the defendant's goods or services was the same as the source of the claimant.

Henleys watch
On the facts here, there had been passing off in relation to watches. Timesource had established that it enjoyed a substantial goodwill in HENLEY watches; sales of watches under the brand name HENLEYS thus created the belief that the watches were, or were associated with, HENLEY watches. There was no question of any deliberate deception of the public. That was not in issue. The question was whether there had been a misrepresentation and, in the court's view, there had been. There was no evidence of actual confusion to speak of, since both parties sold principally to the trade and, where end users were confused, it was usually "reverse confusion" where customers thought Timesource's watches were those of the defendants. However, the court accepted that damage would be likely to ensue even though it was not likely to be great.

What was the likely damage? A loss of sales of HENLEY watches, since Timesource would not be able to sell watches under its own brand name to retailers of HENLEYS watches. However, the claimed loss of royalty income was irrecoverable on the facts since it did not flow from the misrepresentation. Finally, Timesource could not complain of dilution of the HENLEY brand in an action for passing off.

The IPKat wishes that Woolley had been persuaded at an early stage, on discovering the existence of an almost identical mark, to do something more decisive than tolerating its existence so long as some licensing revenue was heading his way. Near-identical marks for the same products generally lead to tears, and/or to litigation, if one or other of them is not killed off.

Merpel marvels that a business can take a licence from a brand owner, establish a good trading position, then decide it can do without the licence and expect to get away with it.

A katpat to Simon Malynicz who, the IPKat hears, did a good job on behalf of the successful claimants here ... and the cat clock depicted above can be purchased here.

No comments:

Subscribe to the IPKat's posts by email here

Just pop your email address into the box and click 'Subscribe':