Primary Health Care is not registrable as a trade mark

You will probably not be surprised to discover that PRIMARY HEALTH CARE is not registrable as a trade mark. You may, however, be surprised that the successful challenger was the Commonwealth of Australia.

Primary Health Care Limited (PHC) applied to register PRIMARY HEALTH CARE and

Primary Health Care logo
Primary Health Care logo

in class 35 for:[1]

Medical centre business management; medical centre business administration; service provider to medical professionals, namely provider of: administrative support services, billing and invoicing services, reception and telephone answering services, patient booking services, patient file management services including management of access to patient files, typing services, account-keeping and book-keeping services, preparation of business reports, systemisation of information into computer databases, professional business consultancy, computerised file management, business and information management services, ordering services, processing of purchase orders.

What PHC did was it bought or built a building for use as a medical practice. It set up the rooms and facilities and provided the staff such as receptionists, book keepers etc. Then it contracted with medical practitioners (mostly GPs) to work from the medical centre, using the staff and facilities PHC made available to provide their services. PHC argued that it used its trade marks only in providing those services to the medical practitioners and the trade marks were not used by it in providing medical services to the medical practitioners’ patients. Thus, it said, it was not using the trade marks for medical services, only for business management and administration services – services for which the expression PRIMARY HEALTH CARE was not an apt description. At [53]:

The applicant’s case is that the Services are all to be provided to health care professionals and are not to include clinical or medical care by those professionals to patients.

This argument was predicated on PHC’s clinics/centres not being called or promoted to the public as PRIMARY HEALTH CARE centres.[2]

Jagot J rejected PHC’s contention. Her Honour accepted that PHC’s marketing was directed to health care professionals rather than the public. Her Honour also accepted that the health care professionals provided the health care services to the patient and jealously guarded their clinical independence in deciding what clinical care to provide to the patient. So PHC was not actually providing medical or health care services to the patients per se. However, it was unrealistic to treat the services PHC provided as being services provided only to the health care professionals. They were also provided to the public. Jagot J explained what her Honour had in mind by reference to the medical centre’s receiptionist – who was employed by PHC. For example at [55] – [59]:

…. the person paying for the services, the medical professional, is not the only person who receives the services or, at the least, is not the only person concerned with the services. The Services include reception and telephone answering services, patient booking services, patient file management services, information management services, billing and invoicing services, computerised file management, and ordering services, all said to be “to medical professionals”. (emphasis supplied)

Assume then a member of the public who wishes to see a GP who is contracted to and has a practice located in one of the applicant’s medical centres (leaving aside, for the moment, the issue about Idameneo and how the marks have in fact been used). The patient calls the centre and speaks to a receptionist. On the applicant’s case, in answering the call, the receptionist is providing a service only to the GP the patient might wish to see and not to the patient. This is untenable. The GP who ultimately sees the patient pays for the service but the service cannot be said to be a service to the GP only. It is also a service to the patient, the cost of which is borne by the GP, at least insofar as the GP does not seek to recoup those costs in the consultation fee. ….

As a consequence, Jagot J found:

[64] As such, the focus of the applicant’s case is off target and at odds with the evidence. The consequences of this disconnect run through every aspect of the case. First, the Services cannot be considered as if they exist in isolation because that is not how the Services are provided. Second, no matter how often the applicant repeats it, I am unable to accept that the Services are directed only to GPs and health professionals; the public and other participants in the health care sector are provided with some of the Services and are potentially concerned with all of the Services. ….

[65] … the reality is that, at least insofar as the Services are concerned, the applicant is providing services to medical professionals within its centres, to patients of those centres, and to all other participants in health care who interact with any medical professional in one of its centres. The fact that the applicant (or Idameneo) receives payment for the provision of the Services directly from the medical professional does not mean that the Services are provided only to the medical professional. Nor does the fact that medical professionals understand that they alone provide clinical or medical services to patients mean that the Services are not provided to patients. The reasoning involved seems to involve a false syllogism: (i) only medical professionals provide clinical services to patients, (ii) the Services are not clinical services, (iii) therefore, the Services are necessarily not services to patients. Propositions (i) and (ii) may be accepted, but they do not lead to proposition (iii).

Therefore, when deciding what the ordinary signification of the words PRIMARY HEALTH CARE was, the relevant public was not just the health care professionals to whom the services were promoted but all other participants in the health care system including patients and potential patients.

For the public so defined, Jagot J then went on to find that the expression PRIMARY HEALTH CARE was directly descriptive and so not inherently adapted to distinguish at all under the old form of s 41(3) or capable of distinguishing under s 41(5) or in fact distinctive under s 41(6).[3]

At first blush her Honour’s ruling that the Services were being provided to the public (other than the medical practitioners) might seem questionable because, so far as I can make out from the judgment, no member of the public (apart from the medical practitioners of course) actually sees the sign PRIMARY HEALTH CARE being used as a trade mark. For example, patients were not given bills or receipts or prescriptions with PRIMARY HEALTH CARE emblazoned on them. Nor does it seem that the receptionist (or other ancillary staff) wore uniforms with the sign on them. If keywords are not used as a trade mark because they are “invisible”, one might think that the unseen expression PRIMARY HEALTH CARE was also not being used as a trade mark for the services provided to the public. As the Commonwealth pointed out, however, PRIMARY HEALTH CARE could be used on, for example, the uniforms if the trade mark were registered. So, taking into account fair notional use renders the “invisiblity” argument untenable.[4]

Perhaps the crucial consideration is that the services being provided by the receptionist and the other “ancillary” staff are just so closely bound up with the health care services being provided by the medical practitioner to be part of those services or taking their character from the primary services being offered at the clinic. This indeed appears to be what her Honour had in mind. So for example, her Honour said at [119]:

there is an unreal distinction at the heart of the applicant’s case between the provision of the Services and the provision of clinical or medical care. The distinction is unreal because the Services are part of the overall service a patient receives when attending a medical centre and, to some extent, are also part of the medical or clinical care a patient receives. It is part of medical care that a GP be able to access clinical records for a patient. It is part of medical care to ensure new records are accessible in the future. It is part of medical care for a patient’s referral to be properly recorded, stored and managed. It is part of medical care for the centre to have available necessary medical supplies. ….

and at [121]:

in the real world context in Australia (at least) the Services are inextricably bound up with the provision of medical and clinical services by general practitioners and allied healthcare professionals, including through medical centres and medical practices – they are ‘part and parcel’ of the practice of general medicine and allied healthcare in the community, of primary health care.

That way of looking at things, with respect, seems in accord with the reasons why the Full Court in the Chifley Tower case rejected the argument that an hotel was engaged in providing property management services.

Jagot J went on to find that an additional ground for refusing registration was that the trade marks were deceptive or confusing. They were deceptive or confusing because, although they were so closely bound up with the provision of medical services, the specification of services did not include medical services. On the other hand, use of the trade marks would be congtrary to law in contravention of s 18 of the Australian Consumer Law because use of the mark misrepresented that PHC provided medical services and further that PHC was responsible for the medical services provided by the medical practitioners at the centres.

Primary Health Care Limited v Commonwealth of Australia [2016] FCA 313 (Jagot J)


  1. The “Services”. In the course of the proceeding the specification of services went through a number of revisions. This is just the starting one, but it indicates the nature of what PHC wanted registration for.  ?
  2. There was a factual dispute whether PHC used PRIMARY HEALTH CARE as the name of 3 or 7 of its medical centres, but this seems to have been regarded as essentially de minimis.  ?
  3. Putting a simple box around the words didn’t improve matters.  ?
  4. This led PHC in one of its revised specifications of services to seek to “disclaim” such use under s33(2) and s 55(1)(b).  ?

Sir Walter …

Raleigh or Scott or … buffalo grass.

Yates J has upheld the Registrar’s refusal to register SIR WALTER for buffalo grass in class 31 on the grounds it lacked any capacity to distinguish and was not in fact distinctive.[1]

Buchanan Turf has a PBR for a variety of soft leaf buffalo grass called Sir Walter – PBR Certificate No. 1082. The variety is actually registered as “Sir Walter”. The PBR is due to expire on 27 March 2018. After that date, of course, anyone will be free to propagate and sell the Sir Walter variety. I wonder what they will call it?

For reasons best known to themselves, Buchanan Turf sought to amend the class 31 specification during the examination process to read:

Buffalo grass of the ‘Sir Walter’ variety (as lodged with the Registrar of Plant Breeder’s Rights (ref: certificate no. 1028), being part of the genus Stenotaphrum and a member of the species Secundatum.

Are you still wondering what the putative propagaters after March 2018 will be wanting to call their variety of lawn seed?

Applying the usual tests, Yates J found that Sir Walter had no inherent capacity to distinguish:

Here, the appellant developed a new thing—a new variety of buffalo grass having particular characteristics—which it called Sir Walter. Sir Walter is the given and proper name for the new variety. It has no other name. In this way, the name Sir Walter must be taken to be part of the common stock of language that denotes this particular variety of grass.

His Honour distinguished the Zima case on the basis that “Zima” was not the name of a variety of tomato.

Buchanan Turf argued its name had acquired distinctiveness – there had been over $16 million in sales since 1996 and some 68 licensed growers. There was also evidence of extensive television, radio and other media advertising; often featuring the terms Sir Walter in combination with a knight device,[2] almost invariably presenting the expression in quotes. One example of use without the device by way of illustration:

“Sir Walter” Premium lawn turf

Sir Walter Premium Lawn Turf is a superior quality soft buffalo grass giving unmatched performance for Australian conditions. Here you can find out all there is to know about this ideal, low maintenance lawn called ‘Sir Walter’. ….

His Honour considered that these types of use, even in specially marked out form, just identified the type of grass that was being used. In doing so, Yates J pointed out that just because the public had come to associate a term with a particular trader did not mean in functioned as a trade mark, relying on Jacob LJ’s dictum in the British Sugar case[3] and BP v Woolworths.

Where the name was used with the knight device, it was not sufficient to show that the combined device as a whole was distinctive, or had acquired distinctiveness. It was necessary to show that SIR WALTER alone had done so as the knight device was not part of the trade mark applied for. As with the standalone uses, in context the name just referred to the type of grass, not its trade source.

Yates J noted that there was no direct evidence from customers about what the name signified to them. This seems to be a recurrent theme in judicial comment. I wonder, however, what that evidence would need to disclose before the conclusion that any such customers just associated the name with Buchanan Turf could be overcome especially in circumstances where (a) it was the name of the variety and (b), until March 2018, there can be only one trade source?[4]

The PBR Act provides:[5]

A name … in respect of a plant variety must not:

(e) be or include a trade mark that is registered, or whose registration is being sought, under the Trade Marks Act 1995 , in respect of live plants, plant cells and plant tissues.

Yates J thought this provision evidenced a policy that rights to use a plant variety name after the PBR had expired should not be impeded by a trade mark registration which, of course, May last a lot longer than a PBR. However, there was no express prohibition in the Trade Marks Act, as there is with the names of patented things, against registering the name of a PBR as a trade mark.

Buchanan Turf Supplies Pty Ltd v Registrar of Trade Marks [2015] FCA 756


  1. Trade Marks Act 1995 s 41(6) (i.e., the old form).  ?
  2. One representation of the combination mark is shown in the Schedule. The knight device is itself a registered trade mark, No 882781.  ?
  3. TREAT: the relevant extract is set out at paragraph 34.  ?
  4. For one case where consumer type evidence was successfully led, see Philmac v Registrar of Trade Marks.  ?
  5. Plant Breeders Act 1994 s 27(5)  ?

Apple can’t register APP STORE as a trade mark in Australia

Yates J has rejected Apple’s attempt to register APP STORE in Australia as a trade mark for retail store services featuring computer software provided via the internet or for use on handheld mobile devices and the like.

Apple applied to register APP STORE in Australia on 18 July 2008 for retail store services featuring computer software […] in class 35 and related services in classes 38 and 42, TM App No 1252301. The application claimed Convention priority from 7 March 2008. Apple’s “App Store” launched in Australia on 11 July 2008 – that is, one week before the application was filed – with the release of the iPhone 3G. The Registrar rejected the application on the grounds that the trade mark lacked any inherent capacity to distinguish and, there having been no use prior to 11 July 2008, it was not factually distinctive of Apple as at the claimed Convention priority date.

Yates J, as noted, has rejected Apple’s “appeal” on the basis that APP STORE is not capable of distinguishing the services specified in the application.[1] As one would expect, his Honour’s decision provides an excellent tutorial on how one should approach questions arising under s 41 including, apart perhaps from questions of onus, the new form.

The relevant date

Yates J held that capacity to distinguish fell to be assessed at the filing date of the application not, as the Registrar contended based essentially on s 72, on the priority date applicable as a Convention application. This was potentially significant as there had been no use of the trade mark at the priority date, but there had been at least one week’s use at the filing date.

Capacity to distinguish

Yates J began by pointing out that whether something has inherent capacity to distinguish depends on the occasion and circumstance. It turns on both the nature of the particular mark itself and also the nature of the particular goods or services specified in the application.[2]

To overcome the Registrar’s rejection, Apple relied on evidence from a linguistics expert, analysis of internet usage on Google Trends and in the Internet Archive and a Newspoll online survey

Apple’s primary argument was that the expression “app store” could not be fully understood by simply combining the meanings of its component parts “app” and “store”. At [88]:

…. In other words, the combination “app store” does not have a “compositional” meaning. According to him, “the compound APP STORE can only be fully?understood non?compositionally”. ….

The argument here was that, while the term “app” had been used as “clipped” form of application since 1985, that usage was restricted to specialised computer circles. In addition, the word “store” meant a physical place where one went to buy goods or services: Apple’s App Store introduced a new meaning: an online, virtual “place” where one did not so much buy things as a “licence” to use software. That is, in more traditional terms, the expression is at best “allusive” rather than directly descriptive.

On the evidence, however, Yates J found that both “app” and “store” had relevantly well-understood descriptive meanings in the relevant sense for the general public at the filing date. There was evidence at [121] – [123] that before the filing date “app” had been used in 83 articles in publications such as PC World, Technology Review, Rolling Stone and Atlantic Monthly to refer to software applications running on PCs in the Windows environment. At [181], his Honour found:

well before 2008, the word “app” had a well-established and well-understood meaning as a shorthand expression for computer software that is application, as opposed to operating, software. I do not accept that, at the filing date, this use of the word was restricted to computer experts. I am satisfied that it was the received meaning for many interested users of computer software and certainly for those involved in the trade of supplying computer programs, including by retail.

and at [190]:

I am not persuaded that the word “store”, as used in APP STORE, ushered in a new meaning of that word. On the evidence, I am satisfied that, at the time that Apple applied for the APP STORE mark, the word “store” had a well-established and well-understood meaning among traders and the general public that was not confined to the traditional notion of a physical store, but extended, as well, to an online store for the provision of goods or services.

His Honour gave as examples Amazon.com’s launch of its e-Books store in 2000, its software download store launched in 2001 and Apple’s own iTunes Music Store launched in 2003.

Consequently, his Honour concluded that members of the public seeking to acquire application software at the filing date would have understood APP STORE to be no more than a description of a trade channel. It had no inherent capacity to distinguish:

I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that, at the filing date, members of the public seeking to acquire application software would have understood APP STORE as no more than an expression to describe a trade channel – a store – by or through which application software could be acquired. The fact that the “acquisition” would have involved the acquisition of rights by way of licence does not, in my view, bear upon the matter.

Even if Apple was the first to use the combined expression, which Yates J does not seem to have been convinced it was, “the words in combination bore no more than their ordinary signification when applied to the designated services in Class 35.”

While his Honour drew on the Full Federal Court’s ruling in Oro / Cinque Stelle overturned by yesterday’s ruling in the High Court, these factual findings of what the terms and combined expression would mean to members of the public, unless somehow overturned, would appear to be fatal to any appeal.

Acquired distinctiveness (secondary meaning)

Yates J considered the evidence on acquired distinctiveness “opaque”. There was no real evidence about how the press releases issued with the launch of the store were used or of any other advertising or promotional steps undertaken. His Honour was prepared to accept that people had done internet searches in the week following launch of the term “app store” and “perhpas many persons” had come to associate the App Store service with Apple, but that was not enough.

The Newspoll survey

The Newspoll survey was drawn from an online pool of people who were willing to participate in market surveys for reward. It disclosed that some 65% of participants associated the term “App Store” with a particular company or brand[3] and at least 88% of those nominated Apple as the company or brand. There were at least 2 main problems with this survey. First, it was conducted in 2011 – 3 years after the relevant date – “well after the relevant period” at [223]. Secondly at [224] – [231], applying cases like Woolworths v BP and Chocolaterie Guylian, it was not enough to demonstrate that the expression APP STORE was associated with Apple; it was necessary to show the nature of that association was to identify the trade source of the product – i.e., as a badge of origin.

The ‘pro-active’ role of the Registrar

Apple criticised the active role the Registrar took in this case: going to the lengths of filing her own expert evidence in answer to Apple’s expert and relying on affidavits provided by solicitors acting for Microsoft. Such an active role is indeed unusual in such appeals. Yates J, however, did not accept that the Registrar’s role could fairly be described as “partisan”. His Honour pointed out that the Registrar is entitled to appear as a party and what role she should take when doing say would depend on the circumstances of particular cases:

In the present appeal, a large body of evidence, including expert evidence, was adduced by Apple. The Registrar was not bound to accept either the completeness or the correctness of that evidence. If, as here, there was a genuine alternative case available on the facts or evidence which materially qualified the case brought by Apple, then that alternative case could only be advanced by evidence adduced by the Registrar in the appeal, including by way of expert evidence, bearing in mind the nature of the proceeding as a hearing de novo. I do not think that the Registrar should be criticised for advancing a case for the Court’s consideration. To deny the Registrar that opportunity would be to deny the Court the opportunity to make findings on an appropriately-informed basis. This is not to encourage the Registrar, as a party to such an appeal, to make the case before the Court more factually complex or extensive than it need reasonably be or to take other than appropriately measured steps in the conduct of the litigation. Quite clearly, appropriate judgment must be exercised in considering what evidence is truly necessary, and what forensic decisions should be taken, to fulfil the Registrar’s role, which must be to take reasonable steps under the Act to protect the public interest in respect of the registration of trade marks in Australia. I do not think that the Registrar has over-stepped the mark in this case. ….

Apple Inc. v Registrar of Trade Marks [2014] FCA 1304


  1. This too was decided under the “old” form of s 41 not the new form introduced by the [Raising the Bar Act][rtb].  ?
  2. Although not referred to specifically by his Honour, this is well illustrated by “North Pole” in respect of “bananas” in contrast to, say, “Whopper” in respect of hamburgers.  ?
  3. There was considerable variation among age groups: 90% of those aged 18 to 34, 81% of those aged 35 to 49 and 60% of those aged 50 to 64.  ?