Licensing relief

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 [44], 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 [44], 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 [45], 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 [51]:

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.[1] At [37]: 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 [161] 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 [159] to [165]. It must be taken from the primary judge’s conclusion at PJ [179], 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 [161], 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 [2019] FCAFC 100 (Reeves, Jagot and Rangiah JJ)


  1. Trident Seafoods currently markets its products in Australia under the trade mark “Bountiful”.  ?

check your e-filing receipts carefully

Now that IP Australia has essentially moved to electronic lodgement, a recent case shows that you need to check your e-receipts carefully. The decision may also prove useful to understanding the Registrar’s obligation to give a party an opportunity to be heard.[1]

Facts

Foxtel instructed their lawyers to file a notice of intention to oppose a trade mark filed by Unicom. Foxtel’s instructions were to file on the last day available to oppose. The notice was prepared and on the last day for filing a legal secretary submitted it through eServices. A transaction receipt was received by return.

Ten days later the in-house lawyer at Foxtel rang up the lawyers, alerting them to the fact that Unicom’s trade mark was now registered. Checking the Register revealed that no notice of intention to oppose had been received. The legal secretary:

then checked her files and the transaction receipt. As it turned out, the receipt was not for the lodgement of the notice of intention but concerned a different transaction altogether. Subsequent review of the electronic log provided by IP Australia indicates that although the process for filing the notice of intention had been commenced, the payment had not been received and lodgement had timed out before the filing was complete.

The lawyers then promptly wrote to the Registrar requesting that the registration of Unicom’s trade mark be revoked under s 84A and s 84B, providing an explanation and subsequently filed the proposed Statement of Grounds and Particulars of Opposition (if the registration were revoked).

The Registrar then wrote to Unicom’s attorneys indicating that, having regard to Foxtel’s intention to oppose and the explanation why that had not been effected, her she intended to revoke the registration, but giving Unicom an opportunity to be heard.

Unicom replied; arguing that something is not regarded as filed under the eServices system until and unless a filing receipt is issued. It also contended that the proposed revocation was outside the power conferred by s84A. After considering the submissions, the Registrar decided not to revoke the registration.

Foxtel, through its lawyers, then obtained a copy of Unicom’s submissions through s 217A and made an application for judicial review under s 5 of the ADJR Act and/or s 39B of the Judiciary Act.

Decision

Burley J has dismissed Foxtel’s application.

Foxtel’s first argument was that it had been denied procedural fairness because it was not provided with an opportunity to respond to Unicom’s submissions before the Registrar changed her mind and decided not to revoke the registration.

The Registrar denied that it owed Foxtel any duty of procedural fairness. She was under no obligation to make a decision under s 84A and, in any event, the terms of s 84A required her to give an opportunity to be heard only to the registrant and people with interests recorded under Part XI.

At [40], Burley J held the Registrar did owe Foxtel a duty of procedural fairness, but the failure to provide it with Unicom’s submissions was not a material breach of that duty.

A duty to provide procedural fairness arises whenever the exercise of a statutory power affected a person’s rights, interests or legitimate expectations unless the duty has been excluded by plain words or necessary intendment.

The public interest in the purity of the Register – that the Register should not be clogged with invalid trade marks – meant Foxtel had a sufficient interest that required it be accorded procedural fairness. At [49], Burley J explained:

…. The “interest” of Foxtel is in persuading the Registrar that, in all the circumstances that existed when the trade mark was registered, the trade mark should not have been because, but for the error in filing the notice of intention to oppose there would have been an opposition on foot at the time of registration (s 84A(1)). In my view this is a form of possible adverse affectation that is sufficient to qualify as an interest to attract the protection of the rules of procedural fairness.

That s 84A did specify some people whom had to be given an opportunity to be heard did not lead an implication that Foxtel was not owed a duty. An intention to exclude natural justice was not to be inferred from the presence in the Act of rights which “are commensurate with some [only] of the rules of natural justice”.[2] While not obliged to make a decision under s 84A, the Registrar was obliged to accord Foxtel natural justice having embarked on the exercise.

While Burley J accepted Foxtel’s argument that it was owed a duty of procedural fairness, his Honour did not accept it had been denied natural justice.

Foxtel argued that, as the Registrar indicated to Unicom she would revoke the registration if Unicom did not respond, Unicom’s submissions must have been material to the Registrar’s change of mind – deciding not to revoke. Therefore, Foxtel argued that the failure to disclose Unicom’s submissions before the Registrar decided not to revoke the registration denied it natural justice.

Burley J examined the reasons the Registrar gave for deciding not to revoke; these had been outlined only in short form in the letter advising her decision. From that letter, his Honour found that the Registrar had in fact rejected Unicom’s arguments on the construction of s 84A and accepted Foxtel’s construction. Therefore, Foxtel had not been denied natural justice on the point.

Burley J was not prepared to accept Foxtel’s argument that the short form letter did not set out the real reasons for the decision, especially in circumstances where Foxtel had not sought a statement of reasons from the Registrar under ADJR Act s 13.

Burley J next rejected Foxtel’s argument that the Registrar’s decision was an improper exercise of power because it was so unreasonable that no reasonable person could have exercised the power that way.

Here, Foxtel’s conscious decision to instruct that the notice of intention to oppose be filed on the last day of the opposition period – not an uncommon practice – loomed large.

Burley J accepted that the scheme of the Act reflected an intention that the Register be pure. His Honour noted, however, that the Act and reg.s also provided for deadlines for filing documents in oppositions and, in addition, provided a further opportunity for objectors to seek rectification through s 88. His Honour also pointed out that the Explanatory Memorandum linked s 84A(6) – which explicitly states the Registrar has no duty to consider whether to revoke a registration under s 84A – to the objectives of the section:

…. Revocation of registration under section 84A is not intended to provide a way of settling competing claims to ownership of a trade mark. This can be pursued through the courts, with section 86 of the Trade Marks Act providing for the Federal Court to cancel a registered trade mark. Nor is it intended to be a mechanism for parties to file de facto oppositions after a trade mark has been registered. This provision is only intended to provide an administrative mechanism to undo a registration where it was wrongly registered.

The Registrar’s letter stated that she had considered “all of the circumstances” and so taken into account all mandatory considerations. Further, as already noted, the procedure was not intended to provide a mechanism “for parties to file de facto oppositions after a trade mark has been registered” and Foxtel could still seek rectification under s 88. In these circumstances, Burley J held the Registrar’s decision was not so unreasonable that no reasonable person would have exercised the power that way.

Rather than take up the invitation to seek rectification under s 88, Foxtel has appealed (NSD795/2019).

Foxtel Management Pty Limited v Registrar of Trade Marks [2019] FCA 605 (Burley J)


  1. Reg. 21.15 applies where the Act or the reg.s “provide for a person to be heard”.  ?
  2. Citing Annetts v McCann [1990] HCA 57; 170 CLR 596 at [2].  ?