Last week, Besanko J dismissed Coca-Cola Co’s claims that PepsiCo’s “Carolina” bottle shape infringed Coke’s trade marks, and was passing off and misleading or deceptive conduct.

Contour v Carolina

Some background

Coca-Cola Co relied on four trade marks: TM Nos 63697, 767355, 1160893 and 1160894 registered in class 32 for non-alcoholic beverages. The first two might be thought of as 2D representations of the shape of Coca-Cola Co’s “Contour” bottle, which has been in use in Australia since 1938.

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The second two were essentially the silhouette of the bottle; one image in white, the other in black.

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PepsiCo had introduced its Carolina bottle shape into Australia in August 2007 on a very small scale. It seems not to have been on the market at all between May 2008 and February 2009, when it was reintroduced on a larger, but still small scale. The Carolina bottle shape had apparently not been the subject of any advertising or promotion. At the time when PepsiCo introduced the Carolina bottle, there were 4, perhaps 6, other bottles used for soft drinks in the market with “waists of varying degrees” so the Contour bottle was not unique in that respect.

The trade mark infringement claims

Besanko J found that PepsiCo was using the Carolina bottle shape as a trade mark, but did not infringe because it was not deceptively similar to Coca-Cola Co’s trade marks.

In deciding that PepsiCo was using the overall shape of the Carolina bottle as a trade mark, Besanko J noted that the relevant goods were the beveage, a formless substance, and the bottle was just a container. So, the cases like Philips v Remington where the shape was the shape of the goods themselves did not apply. At [213], his Honour found that the shape was distinctive and intended to be so.

Besanko J was not prepared to find, however, that PepsiCo used the silhouette of the Carolina bottle as a trade mark. A number of factors played into this conclusion. His Honour accepted that the outline or shape of the bottle may be one of the first things seen by a consumer from a distance. However, that was not enough in itself. Among the factors that led to the finding, his Honour noted at [215]:

…. All bottles have an outline or silhouette and the fact that a bottle has a waist is not so extraordinary as to lead to the conclusion that that feature alone is being used as a trade mark.

and at [216]:

…. the outline or silhouette of the Carolina Bottle is likely to become less important in the consumer’s mind as he or she approaches the refrigerator or cooler and focuses on word marks, logos, and brands. As I have said, the fact that an aspect of a product may be seen at one point does not lead to the conclusion that consumers would see it as a badge of origin.

deceptive similarity

Besanko J agreed with the Full Court’s analysis of the shape depicted in TM Nos 63697 and 767355:

  • the sides of the bottle are curved rather than flat;
  • there is fluting on the top and lower portions of the bottle and no fluting in a central section;
  • the top and lower portions of the bottle have the same number of flutes; and
  • the bottle has a flat base and banded neck.

In contrast, PepsiCo’s Carolina bottle did not have flutes or the clear band; it had a horizontal “wave” feature and its waist was both more gradual and extended higher up the bottle. These differences at [235] were “significant”.

At [240], his Honour rejected Coca-Cola Co’s argument that the overall impression consumers would take away from the Carolina bottle was of “a bottle having a low waisted contoured shape”. Instead:

I do not accept that that is the view which would be held by the ordinary consumer. In my opinion, the waist, the horizontal wave feature, and, to a lesser extent, the frustoconical neck are the significant features of the Carolina Bottle.

Besanko J was not prepared to find that outline or silhouette of the bottle was the essential feature of thes trade marks. Rather, the vertical flutes and the clear belt band were as prominent. At [238]:

…. It cannot be said, for example, that a bottle with a waist is so extraordinary, or a bottle with vertical flutes and a clear belt band so common, that the outline or silhouette should be considered the essential feature.

However, Besanko J also found that the Carolina bottle was not deceptively similar to the silhouette marks represented in TM Nos 1160893 and 1160894. His Honour found that the Carolina bottle was distinctive in itself and, therefore, not deceptively similar. So, at [247], his Honour said:

Even if the outline or silhouette is the only feature of the marks, or is the essential idea of the marks, the comparison is with the sign the alleged infringer has used as a trade mark. In this case, I have found that is the whole shape of the Carolina Bottle. The following are the distinctive features of the Carolina Bottle which I think are distinctive but are not part of the registered marks:

(1) the Carolina Bottle has a gently curving waist at a higher point than that in the marks and does not have an abrupt pinch near the base;

(2) the Carolina Bottle has a cylindrical shoulder, not a curved shoulder;

(3) the Carolina Bottle has a frustoconical neck, not a curved neck;

(4) the Carolina Bottle has a twist top enclosure, not a cap lid seal; and

(5) the Carolina Bottle has a distinctive horizontal embossed wave pattern across the bottom half of the bottle.

Then, at [248], his Honour pointed out that the first 4 factors related to the silhouette and “it seems to me … the outline or silhouette of the Carolina Bottle would not be deceptively similar to either [trade mark].”

I am not at all sure, with respect, that the question is whether the accused sign is distinctive in its own right. Perhaps this means that, in a market where there are other low waisted bottles, the differences were sufficiently important that consumers would not be caused to wonder whether there was a connection with the trade mark owner.

Passing off / misleading or deceptive conduct

On this part of the case, Besanko J thought it was difficult to see why the ordinary consumer would not make his or her purchase on the basis of the [famous] brand names, device marks or logos. However, “not without some hesitation”, his Honour was prepared to find at [270] that a sufficient number of consumers who select a bottle from the store’s refrigerated drinks cabinet themselves “may well make their selection based on overall bottle shape” as a result of their minimal involvement in the purchase.

There was no likelihood of deception or confusion, however, as the shape of the bottles was too different. At [271]:

The difficulty for [Coca-Cola Co] is that, even accepting that and accepting that both bottles will contain dark brown cola and be sold within a similar, if not the same, context, I do not think that such a consumer would be misled or deceived, or would be likely to be misled or deceived, in the case of overall bottle shape because I think he or she would detect quite clearly the difference between the Contour Bottle and the Carolina Bottle. The most noticeable difference between the two bottles is that the Contour Bottle has the very distinctive fluting and the Carolina Bottle has the distinctive horizontal waves. Other noticeable features are the different shaped neck and shoulders and the fact that the waist on the Contour Bottle is lower and more pinched. In other words, if overall bottle shape is the cue, I do not think that there is any real likelihood of deception.

The role of intention

On all 3 aspects of the case, Coca-Cola Co contended that PepsiCo had intentionally designed the Carolina bottle to take advantage of the reputation in the Contour bottle. While Besanko J noted there were features of the relevant PepsiCo executive’s evidence “which caused me to scrutinise it carefully”, his Honour was not prepared to find an intention to deceive or cause confusion.

In any event, Besanko J did not think the resemblance of the Carolina bottle to the Contour shape was sufficiently close for PepsiCo’s intentions to lead to findings of infringement, passing off or misleading or deceptive conduct.

Coca Cola Company v PepsiCo Inc (No 2) [2014] FCA 1287