Superman KOs “superman workout”

DC Comics, the owner of rights to the, er, man of steel character, has successfully blocked an attempt the register “superman workout” for “conducting exercise classes; fitness and exercise clinics, clubs and salons; health club services (exercise)” in class 41. It did have to appeal from the Registrar of Trade Marks to the Federal Court and it did not win for the reasons you might think.

Like the Registrar, Bennett J rejected DC Comics’ opposition based on s 60. Her Honour accepted that the superhero was indeed well-known, but noted that the term “superman” was also an ordinary English word defined as such in both the Macquarie and Oxford Dictionaries:

[49] …. the use of the word “superman” in the Trade Mark is, or has become, descriptive. Use of a word originally associated with a particular trade source, may over time become descriptive of a class of goods or characterisations.

[50] When the Trade Mark is used without reference to any of the well known indicia associated with the DC Comics superhero and as contained in the registered Trade Mark or other trade marks registered by DC Comics, there is no likelihood that use of the Trade Mark would be likely to deceive or cause confusion by reference to the Superman word mark, or the subject matter of DC Comics’ registered trade marks. The public would not be caused to wonder whether “superman workout” came from the same source as the Superman character or DC Comics.

Accordingly, there was no real, tangile danger of people confusing use in relation to fitness workouts with the superhero.

When Cheqout began using “superman workout”, however, it also used it with this logo:

cheqout logo
cheqout logo

Bennett J was willing to infer that this logo was being used to strengthen the allusion to the Man of Steel and so appropriate the benefit of DC Comics’ reputation for Cheqout’s fitness services. That was not in accordance with acceptable commercial standards and so the application was made in bad faith contrary to s 62A.

In reaching that conclusion, Bennett J adopted the approach previously taken by Dodds-Streeton J in the Tennis Warehouse case. Bennett J emphasised that Dodds-Streeton J rejected a submission that exploitative conduct alone could never constitute ‘bad faith’. Rather, it was the particular circumstances of that case, especially the US company’s failure to follow up its demands for 2 years.

DC Comics v Cheqout Pty Ltd [2013] FCA 478

Registering a trade mark in bad faith

Dodds-Streeton J has handed down what appears to be the first detailed judicial consideration in Australia of what constitutes making an application for a trade mark in bad faith contrary to s 62A.

Sports Warehouse Inc. and Fry both sell tennis products online using trade marks based on TENNIS WAREHOUSE.

Sports Warehouse started first, in 1984 in California although in time its business expanded and in 1994 it went on line. Eventually, its sales expanded internationally including to Australia.

Fry had successfully opposed Sports Warehouse registering TENNIS WAREHOUSE.

Sports Warehouse successfully opposed Fry registering:

However, Dodds-Streeton J has now upheld Fry’s appeal.

The grounds of opposition included that the trade mark lacked capacity to distinguish, that it was confusingly similar to Sports Warehouse’s trade mark and also that the application was made in bad faith.

The s 62A ground was based on the fact that, before Fry adopted its trade mark, its principal, Mr Fry had done a Google search and come across Sports Warehouse’s website. He also used some photographs from Sports Warehouse’s website for his own site. However, he said that before he adopted the name his wife had done a trade mark search to confirm it was not an “international” trade mark. Further, he acknowledged at [21]:

there was potential that some people would confuse the websites (at least at the point of the domain name) and acknowledged that he chose the name partly for that reason, but denied that he hoped to use Sports Warehouse’s reputation in order to boost early sales.  He also denied that he believed the name TENNIS WAREHOUSE would cause customers aware of Sports Warehouse’s website to think that the Fry Consulting website was an arm or affiliate of Sports Warehouse.

Dodds-Streeton J noted that, when introduced in 2006, the EM had included a number of examples of bad faith:
  • a person who monitors new property developments; registers the name of the new property development as a trade mark for a number of services; and then threatens the property developer with trade mark infringement unless they licence or buy the trade mark;
  • a pattern of registering trade marks that are deliberate misspellings of other registered trade marks; and
  • business people who identify a trade mark overseas which has no market penetration in Australia, and then register that trade mark with no intention to use it in the Australian market and for the express purpose of selling the mark to the overseas owner.

(The last example may be contrasted to the “sharp”, but previously legitimate, practice of registering such a mark and operating a business in Australia – see [20] here.)

The concept in s 62A, however, was not limited to those examples. Her Honour drew substantial guidance from a number of English cases (and consideration of those decisions in the Office) on s 3(6) of the Trade Marks Act 1994 (UK) which adopted a “combined test” involving both subjective and objective elements:

dishonesty requires knowledge by the defendant that what he was doing would be regarded as dishonest by honest people, although he should not escape a finding of dishonesty because he sets his own standards of honesty and does not regard as dishonest what he knows would offend the normally accepted standards of honest conduct.

and

The words “bad faith” suggest a mental state. Clearly when considering the question of whether an application to register is made in bad faith all the circumstances will be relevant. However the court must decide whether the knowledge of the applicant was such that his decision to apply for registration would be regarded as in bad faith by persons adopting proper standards.

Accordingly, her Honour considered:

  1. Bad faith, in the context of s 62A, does not, in my opinion, require, although it includes, dishonesty or fraud. It is a wider notion, potentially applicable to diverse species of conduct.
  2. The formulation in United Kingdom authority of bad faith as falling short of the standards of acceptable commercial behaviour observed by reasonable and experienced persons in a particular area is, in my view, an apt touchstone. An overly literal application may, however, tend to negate the relevance attributed to the applicant’s mental state in the combined test preferred in Harrison.
  3. Further, in my view, mere negligence, incompetence or a lack of prudence to reasonable and experienced standards would not, in themselves, suffice, as the concept of bad faith imports conduct which, irrespective of the form it takes, is of an unscrupulous, underhand or unconscientious character.

Dodds-Streeton J rejected the proposition that it was enough that Fry knew of Sports Warehouse’s trade mark and usage.

While her Honour regarded Fry’s conduct as exploitative, the factor which saved it in the end was an exchange of correspondence between the parties. After Sports Warehouse learnt of Fry’s use and demanded it stop on the basis of its international trade mark, Mr Fry had challenged it to provide proof of the international trade mark. Sports Warehouse said it would do so the next day but, her Honour found, never did so. At [174]:

  1. In circumstances where:

(a) Mr Fry unequivocally indicated his willingness to cease using TENNIS WAREHOUSE if Sports Warehouse provided evidence of its entitlement, and sought a prompt response, so that if necessary he could change the name prior to significant business development and expenditure on advertising;

(b) Mr Fry did not acknowledge Sports Warehouse’s ownership or rights in Australia and Kenny J did not find that Mr Fry did not believe his assertions about the implications of a business name search, although they were misconceived;

(c) Sports Warehouse, despite undertaking to do so, did not provide any documentation or evidence of its entitlement or rights to the “TENNIS WAREHOUSE” mark, the subsequent application to register which in Australia was unsuccessful. It failed to make any further contact or objection until Fry Consulting again initiated contact two years later; and

(d) During that period, in the absence of any further objection or contact from Sports Warehouse, Mr Fry proceeded to develop his business using the words “TENNIS WAREHOUSE”, to which he added the word “AUSTRALIA”, and subsequently commissioned Mr Hughes to design a tennis ball logo, resulting in a composite mark,

it was difficult to accept that Fry’s conduct fell short of what would be acceptable commercial behaviour (especially, one might add, where Fry did not lodge its application until 2 years after Sports Warehouse said it would provide its proofs the next day).

Fry Consulting Pty Ltd v Sports Warehouse Inc (No 2) [2012] FCA 81