The Full Court has restored some commercial sanity to trade mark licensing in Australia and ruled that Manassen, the parent company, was an authorised user of the TRIDENT trade marks owned by Trident Foods (the subsidiary). This is an important ruling as it is a common arrangement for a corporate group’s trade marks to be held by an IP “holding company” which is often not the parent of the group.
Trident Seafoods, a large American corporation, has its trade mark:
blocked in Australia by Trident Foods’ TRIDENT registrations. It therefore tried to get Trident Foods’ registrations removed for non-use.
The trial judge found that Trident Foods had not used its trade marks in the relevant period, but exercised her Honour’s discretion against removal. Her Honour found that Trident Foods did not use its trade marks itself; they were used by Manassen, which was Trident Foods’ parent. The trial judge considered that the arrangements did not constitute the exercise of control by Trident Foods over Manassen to qualify as authorised use under section 8. Trident Seafood appealed her Honour’s decision not to order removal. The Full Court held that her Honour had erred and should have found Manassen’s used was authorised use and so the removal action failed because Trident Foods proved use of its trade marks in the relevant period. It also held that there was no error in the exercise of the discretion not to remove the registrations.
There was licensed use
At , the Full Court set out the trial judge’s findings that Manassen was not Trident Foods’ authorised user:
I am not satisfied that the evidence identified by Trident Foods shows that Manassen’s use of the “TRIDENT” trade mark has been “under the control of” Trident Foods within the meaning of s 8 for the following reasons:
(1) The corporate relationship between Trident Foods and Manassen does not place Trident Foods in a relationship of control over Manassen; rather, the converse is the case. The commonality of directors does not, without more, permit Trident Foods to exercise control over Manassen.
(2) Ms Swanson’s evidence is in the nature of assertion. It does not include any particular illustration of conduct by Trident Foods amounting to actual control of the use of the “TRIDENT” trade mark.
(3) The fact that Ms Swanson considered it unnecessary to give directions, whether by reason of the existence of the VQM Manual or otherwise, is not relevant to the question of whether Manassen had obligations to Trident Foods in relation to the use of the “TRIDENT” trade mark.
(4) Any control that Ms Swanson might personally exercise by virtue of her membership of the Innovations Council (which was asserted but not demonstrated) does not prove control by Trident Foods.
(5) The identification of Trident Foods as trade mark owner on products supplied by Manassen does not prove use of the trade mark under the control of Trident Foods.
(6) Assuming that the VQM Manual is owned by Trident Foods jointly with other corporate entities in the Bright Group, Trident Seafoods did not demonstrate that the VQM Manual conferred any relevant control on Trident Foods over Manassen.
(7) I am not satisfied on the evidence that there was an unwritten licence agreement in place, notwithstanding the recitals to the 3 November 2017 agreement. The affidavit evidence does not support the accuracy of the recital as to that unwritten agreement.
At , the Full Court noted that Lodestar required actual control over the use of the trade mark to qualify as authorised use under section 8. Whether there was actual control was a question of fact and degree. However, control could arise “where there was obedience to the trade mark owner “so instinctive and complete that instruction was not necessary”.
At , the Full Court considered the relevant issue was not which company controlled the other, but whether or not Trident Foods had control over the use of the trade marks by Manassen even though Trident Foods was its wholly owned subsidiary. The Full Court held that there was relevant control. The two companies were acting with “unity of purpose”. Here:
- the two companies had common directors;
- as directors of Trident Foods, those directors had obligations to maintain the value of its trade marks (which were valued in its books at $10 million)
To that end Trident Foods necessarily controlled Manassen’s use of the marks by reason of the simple fact that it owned the marks and its directors, who were also Manassen’s directors, must have had one common purpose, being to maximise sales and to enhance the value of the brand.
So it was “commercially unrealistic” in these circumstances not to infer the common directors necessarily wished to ensure the maintenance and enhancement of the value of the brand (emphasis supplied)
- further, every packet sold by Manassen bore a notice that the trade marks were owned by Trident Foods
- the corporate relationship, the commonality of directors and the shared processes between the two companies meant it was not surprising there were no particular instances of actual control being exercised over Manassen
- It was inconceivable that Manassen was using the trade marks without the knowledge, consent and authority of Trident Foods
As a result, the Full Court considered it was not accurate to characterise Trident Foods as merely acquiescing in Manassen’s use of the trade marks rather than controlling that use. At :
Mere acquiescence denotes passive acceptance of Manassen’s use but the corporate relationship, common directorships and arrangements between the companies required active engagement by those directors to protect Trident Foods’ valuable goodwill ($10 million in the books of Trident Foods, PJ [161(1)]). Trident Foods’ active consent and authority must constitute an unwritten licence for use of the marks.
So, Trident Foods demonstrated that it had used its trade marks (through its authorised user, Manassen) during the relevant non-use period.
The discretion not to remove under s 101(3) & (4)
If it had been necessary, the Full Court also rejected Trident Seafoods’ argument that the trial judge should not have exercised her discretion against removal. In reaching that conclusion, the trial judge had properly taken into account the length and extent of Trident Foods’ reputation in the TRIDENT trade marks and the potential for confusion if Trident Seafoods introduced its trade mark into the market place. At : the Full Court explained:
The criticisms of the primary judge are unfounded. The primary judge did identify the relevant context and the evidentiary foundation for her conclusion about confusion. Trident Seafoods’ asserted error constitutes nothing more than a disagreement with the evidence the primary judge considered should be given weight and her characterisation of the relevant context. At PJ  the primary judge identified, amongst other things, that the Trident marks have a substantial reputation in Australia having regard to the brand’s “high penetration in Australian households that it is probably in most households at some point during the year”, the fact that there is “not an independent retail channel in Australia that does not carry a ‘TRIDENT’ brand product”, “‘TRIDENT’ branded products are on promotion with independent retailers every month of the year, across the range”, and “‘TRIDENT’ is the number 1 selling brand for sweet chilli sauce, dates and coconut cream”. The primary judge also referred expressly to the competing contentions of Trident Seafoods about the potential for confusion at PJ  to . It must be taken from the primary judge’s conclusion at PJ , particularly PJ [179(5)] that the primary judge was not persuaded by Trident Seafoods’ submissions about the prospect of confusion. We also do not accept that, in the circumstances identified by the primary judge at , there was insufficient evidence for the primary judge to conclude that removal of the marks would create a prospect of confusion in the minds of consumers. The primary judge’s finding at [179(5)] that “confusion is likely to be experienced by consumers who purchase food products at supermarkets because the ‘TRIDENT’ mark is likely to be associated in the minds of those consumers with an array of food products (not necessarily assumed to be limited to, for example, tinned products or tinned products of a particular variety) emanating from a single supplier and available for purchase at supermarkets” is unassailable. The finding was not only open on the evidence but, in our view, was correct. The fact that her Honour did not consider the TRIDENT brand had any residual reputation in respect of fish is not inconsistent with and does not undermine this conclusion.
The Full Court also rejected Trident Seafoods’ arguments that the trial judge had erred in treating mussels, oysters and oyster sauce as falling within “fish” and “fish products”. Trident Seafoods based its arguments on dictionary definitions of these terms. However, a “fair reading of the Nice Classifications discloses that molluscs and crustacean were treated as within the meaning of “fish” and other dictionary definitions also included molluscs and crustaceans within the meaning of ”fish”.
Trident Seafoods Corporation v Trident Foods Pty Ltd  FCAFC 100 (Reeves, Jagot and Rangiah JJ)
- Trident Seafoods currently markets its products in Australia under the trade mark “Bountiful”. ?