The Full Court has partially allowed an appeal from Foster J’s decision to order Knott Investments to stop using the Winnebago trade marks for “campers” or RVs not made by Winnebago. As a result, Knott can continue to use “Winnebago” if it can make it clear it is not associated with the Winnebago company.
From about 1959, Winnebago had been making and selling its RVs under that brand name in the USA and eventually other countries including the UK and Canada, but not Australia.
In the early 1960s, Binns became aware of the Winnebago name and logo while travelling around the USA. In 1978, Binns and his wife started manufacturing and selling their own RVs in Australia under the name “Winnebago” and using the Winnebago logo. In 1982, they incorporated Knott which then took over running their business.
The Winnebago company discovered what Knott was up to by 1985. However, the Winnebago company did nothing about this until 1992 when the parties entered into a “settlement” agreement. Following this, Knott kept making and selling its own Winnebago brand RVs and registered the Winnebago logo as trade marks. Winnebago itself did nothing further until 2010, when it wished to enter the market in Australia and started proceedings alleging misleading or deceptive conduct, passing off and seeking revocation of Knott’s trade mark registration for Winnebago and the logo.
When do you test whether conduct is misleading or deceptive
The Full Court allowed Knott’s appeal insofar as it related to when Knott’s conduct had to be tested as misleading or deceptive. Foster J held this was in 1982 when Knott was recorded in the Register of Business Names as having commenced running the business, there being no formal documentation of a transfer of the business. The Full Court, however, considered that Knott was plainly the successor in title to the Binns’ business and so the relevant time was 1978, when the Binns started up.
This is important because the Full Court unanimously considered the relevant time to assess whether conduct is misleading or deceptive under s 52 of the TPA (as it was) and s 18 of the ACL (as it now is) is the date when the “infringer’s” conduct started, not some later date.
As it turned out, however, this did not help Knott much as the Full Court considered the evidence clearly established Winnebago had a “spillover” reputation in Australia in 1978 even though it had not traded in Australia at that point. Therefore, Knott (and the Binns’) conduct was likely to mislead or deceive.
Estoppel, laches, acquiescance or delay
The issue that loomed large in the Full Court’s eyes was Winnebago’s delay in bringing proceedings to enforce its rights – 25 years after it first learned of Knott’s activities and 18 years after the “settlement” agreement. Over that period of time, Knott had built up its own substantial reputation in “Winnebago” in vehicles of its own manufacture.
First, the Full Court agreed with Foster J that the “settelment” agreement did not authorise or concede any rights to use “Winnebago” to Knott. Clause 6 provided:
This Agreement does not address, impact upon, or relate in any way, manner or form to the use or ownership of the [Winnebago marks] in Australia or to any rights relating to the [Winnebago marks] based on reputation or use under any statute or at common law in Australia. By entering into this Agreement, Winnebago does not expressly or impliedly acknowledge that Australian Company has any rights of any nature whatsoever to the [Winnebago marks] in Australia. To the extent not expressed in this Agreement, this Agreement shall be without prejudice to the rights of Winnebago and Winnebago expressly reserves all of its legal rights.
Knott argued, however, that the 18 year delay in bringing proceedings meant it was unjust to permit Winnebago to bring proceedings now. Allsop J despatched this argument for six:
First, there was no clear representation, arising either out of the Settlement Agreement or from the conduct. The terms of the agreement, in their context, contained a degree of commercial ambiguity. The terms, however, of cl 6 could leave no doubt in Mr Binns’ mind that any practical confidence in him that Winnebago was not going to sue him was not based on any right conceded by Winnebago. He proceeded at his own risk. The finding by the primary judge at  of the reasons (not specifically challenged) that Mr Binns knew there was a risk of having to rebrand his product if Winnebago entered the market is also fatal to the submission. (emphasis supplied)
Allsop CJ and Jagot J rejected Knott’s arguments based on laches, acquiescance and delay both for similar reasons and because Knott had expressly disclaimed them at trial.
Notwithstanding this, the Full Court considered that Foster J’s order that Knott be restrained from using the Winnebago trade marks was unjust. Even though Knott (or, really, Binns) had adopted the Winnebago trade marks to take advantage of the Winnebago company’s reputation and there was evidence that some members of the public had been misled, nonetheless, Knott had over decades built up its own substantial, independent reputation. Instead, therefore, the injunction should only prohibit use which did not appropriately disclaim any trade association with the Winnebago company. At , Allsop CJ explained:
This limitation of relief can be seen to reflect not only the balancing of the respective interests of Knott and Winnebago in the reputation developed by Knott’s expenditure, in the context of Winnebago’s extraordinary (and informed) delay, but also the erosion of the reputation of Winnebago ….
The evidence reveals sufficient to conclude that at least some of Knott’s reputation in the use of the name and marks was the development of its goodwill and reputation; that not all of the development of its business involved the taking advantage of Winnebago’s reputation in Australia. In normal circumstances, this would not matter; it would be something that the party passing off would have to accept as a consequence of its wrongdoing. Here, however, Winnebago has contributed to this by standing by, informed of the position, for 25 years while Knott expended money and built a business, part at least of which was its own reputation. (emphasis supplied)
The disclaimer or dissassociation had to be clear on the vehicles Knott made in future as well as in its advertising and promotional material.
The third member of the Court, Cowdroy J, did not explicitly reject the laches or acquiescance defence, but agreed in the approach of Allsop CJ saying at :
the Court considers that the granting of relief to completely restrain the appellants from the use of the Winnebago marks to be unreasonable in light of the substantial delay by Winnebago.
Finally, the Full Court upheld Foster J’s order to cancel Knott’s registration of the Winnebago trade marks. Knott had registered these in direct contravention of the terms of the “settlement” agreement.
In 1992, a representative of the Winnebago company had written to its then Australian lawyers explaining:
… While we are obviously interested in persuading or compelling Mr Binns to cease using the subject marks in Australia, I really do not think that we can justify any additional expense. We are not selling our products there nor do we have any plans to do so. There has in the past been some indication that Mr Binns was experiencing some financial duress and perhaps with any luck he will go broke. In any event, at least for the time being, I think we will just continue to monitor this situation … 
No doubt, the sentiments will resonate with everyone advising a foreign brand owner in Australia. The Full Court’s approach may provide a warning. The terms of the “settlement” agreement were sufficiently limited to preserve the Winnebago company’s right to enter the market and object to misrepresentation of association, but failure to enforce its rights promptly has left it encumbered with a competing, independent user of its brand. On the other hand, Knott did not bring matters to a head in negotiating the “settlement” agreement and finds itself constrained. As Allsop CJ said, it ran the risk. How the disclaimer should be effected is unclear, but there are indications in Allsop CJ’s reasons that Knott has been able effectively to dissociate its business from the Winnebago company, while still using the Winnebago trade marks, since 2003.
Knott Investments Pty Ltd v Winnebago Industries, Inc  FCAFC 59
- Nothing controversial in the principle: see ConAgra v McCain  FCA 159; 33 FCR 302, although successful cases are still relatively rare. ?
- For example, Foster J referred to Knott spending over $6million in advertising expenditure between 1992 and 2010. ?
- See  of Foster J’s reasons at first instance. ?