Winnebago loses half an appeal

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.

Some facts

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.

Winnebago logo
Winnebago logo

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.[1] 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.[2]

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 [155] 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 [67], 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 ….

and

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 [106]:

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.

Some thoughts

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 … [3]

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 [2013] FCAFC 59


  1. Nothing controversial in the principle: see ConAgra v McCain [1992] FCA 159; 33 FCR 302, although successful cases are still relatively rare.  ?
  2. For example, Foster J referred to Knott spending over $6million in advertising expenditure between 1992 and 2010.  ?
  3. See [114] of Foster J’s reasons at first instance.  ?

Mediaquest v Registrar

It turns out that the Registrar does have power to undo an assignment of a registered trade mark that has been registered wrongly.

A Mr Brailsford was the registered owner of the Peel Away trade mark for paint stripping preparations, TM No. 741047. He died in 2008.

On 23 Setember 2010, trade mark attorney McInnes filed an application to register an assignment of the trade mark to Mediaquest.

On 8 October 2010, the Registrar registered the assignment and Mediaquest became the owner of TM No. 741047.

On 12 November 2010, trade mark attorney Wilson wrote to the Registrar complaining about the registration of the assignment without notification to him and challenging it. Mr Wilson was acting for Mr Brailsford’s heirs and had been the address for service entered in the Register when the application to register the assignment was lodged.[1]

On 22 November 2010, the Registrar wrote to Mr McInness stating that the documentation relied on to establish the assignment was inadequate and so the Registrar intended to cancel the registration of assignment pursuant to s 81. Mediaquest objected to this and pointed out, amongst other things, that it had withdrawn a pending non-use action once the assignement was registered.

Further correspondence took place and, in due course, a hearing at which the delegate concluded Mediaquest had not established its entitlement to be registered as the assignee. Mediaquest appealed.

On appeal, Emmett J held that:

1 Mediaquest was not entitled to an assignment; and
2 the Registrar did have power to cancel the registration of the assignment.

Ownership

Mediaquest claimed it had an assignment from CRT. Mr Brailsford was the president and a director of CRT. Mediaquest sought to argue that his registration of TM No 741047 in Australia was in breach of his duties to CRT as a director and consequently the trade mark belonged in equity to CRT and, as a result of an assignment from CRT to Mediaquest, to it.

It seems Mr Brailsford may well have coined the mark and used it in the USA. At one point, the US mark was owned by another of Mr Brailsford’s companies, Pilgrim. In November 1992, Pilgrim assigned all its rights to Mr Brailsford and, in August 1993, Mr Brailsford assigned all his (US)[2] rights to CRT. It was after this, in 1997, that Mr Brailsford applied to register what became TM No. 741047 in Australia in his own name. In 1998, CRT applied to register a patent in the UK, identifying Mr Brailsford as the inventor and claiming entitlement through agreement with him.[3]

Emmett J found Mr Brailsford was entitled to register TM No. 741047 in his own name:

  • CRT was clearly the owner of the US trade marks;
  • both Pilgrim and CRT were creatures of Mr Bailsford;
  • while CRT was incorporated in Jersey in the Channel Islands, there was no evidence that it had ever traded anywhere other than in the USA or the UK.

At [34]:

The contention advanced on behalf of Mediaquest is that Mr Brailsford acquired the opportunity to register the Peel Away Mark in Australia by reason of his being a director of CRT. However, that can only be an inference. The circumstance that Mr Brailsford had dealings with the Peel Away mark before CRT was incorporated gives rise to a contrary inference. That is to say, it does not necessarily follow that the opportunity of registering the Peel Away mark in Australia was one that came to Mr Brailsford by reason of his being a director of CRT. Rather, an inference is at least available, and may perhaps be more easily drawn, that CRT acquired whatever opportunity it had to exploit the Peel Away Mark, and associated technology and knowhow, because Mr Brailsford chose to make it available to CRT. (emphasis supplied)

In these circumstances, his Honour concluded at [36] that the opportunity to register the trade mark in Australia did not come Mr Brailsford’s way because of his role in CRT and so CRT was not entitled to the trade mark in equity.

Power to cancel

Section [88(2)(e)] provides a power to rectify the Register on the basis that an entry in the Register “was made, or has previously been amended, as a result of fraud, false suggestion or misrepresentation.” This power, however, is conferred on the Court, not the Registrar.

Emmett J noted that under s 109 and s 110 the Registrar only had power to register an assignment of a trade mark. Whether there had been a valid assignment was a jurisdictional fact and, if there had not been a valid assignment, there was no power to register the assignment. In such a case, therefore, the Registrar had power to cancel the erroneous entry. As a result at [54]:

There was no actual assignment of the Registered Mark to Mediaquest, either from Mr Brailsford or from his executors. Accordingly, the Registrar’s decision of 8 October 2010 to record the assignment in the Register was tainted by jurisdictional error and was no decision at all. It was therefore open to the Registrar to reconsider whether the duty imposed by s 110 had been enlivened, by revisiting the question of whether there was an actual assignment or transmission of the Registered Mark to Mediaquest. Having determined that there was no actual assignment or transmission, it was open to the Registrar to take steps to cancel the earlier action. There is nothing in the Act to indicate that a decision of the Registrar under Part 10 that was affected by jurisdictional error should continue to have legal effect. Indeed the considerations outlined above suggest the contrary.

In answer to Mediaquest’s concerns about the uncertainty this would give rise, Emmett J pointed out at [56] that:

the scheme of the Act is not proprietorship by registration but registration of proprietorship. Registration under the Act is only prima facie evidence of ownership, as is provided by s 210. The registered owner is always susceptible to action being taken under Part 8 to revoke a trade mark that should never have been registered, or to substitute the true owner of the trade mark for that of a wrongful claimant. True ownership of a trade mark is a defence to infringement proceedings brought under the Act.

That is, registration was only prima facie evidence of ownership. Accordingly, all registrations were subject to an inherent level of uncertainty.

One interesting aspect of his Honour’s approach is that it does not appear to be based on the power conferred by s 81. Rather, it seems to have a much more fundamental underpinning in “jurisdictional error”.

No doubt, there is a sense here that the Court is not interested in technicalities that would force all of these types of disputes to be brought before it rather than knocked on the head in the Office. One might wonder, however, why the Registrar does not require documentation signed by the assignor as well as the assignee in the first place. This may well become more of an issue with the recordal of security interests as the Registrar’s practice is apparently to allow an interest to be recorded by the person claiming to have taken out a security interest alone.

Mediaquest Communications LLC v Registrar of Trade Marks [2012] FCA 768


  1. At the moment, as a result of Emmett J’s decision, Mr Brailsford is shown as the owner, but (presumably) Mr McInnes’ firm is shown as the address for service.  ?
  2. It is not clear from the judgment whether the agreement was in terms limited expressly to the US rights or this is an inference from the limited rights then existing.  ?
  3. The nature of the agreement is not specified in the judgment.  ?

High Court allows appeal in Health World

The High Court has unanimously allowed Health World’s appeal from the Federal Court’s ruling that it was not an “aggrieved person” and so had no standing to seek rectification of Shin Sun’s HEALTHPLUS trade mark.

Shin Sun had registered HEALTH PLUS for pharmaceutical products including vitamins and dietary supplements in class 5; and Health World was using INNER HEALTH PLUS for the same type of goods and had successfully registered it. Its action for rectification of the Register had failed in the Federal Court on the grounds that it was not an “aggrieved person”.

The High Court ruled that Health World was an aggrieved person as it and Shin Sun were trade rivals, selling the health products in question.

They are in the same trade, and they each trade in the class of goods in respect of which the challenged mark is registered.

French CJ, Gummow, Heydon and Bell JJ noted at [22]

the legislative scheme reveals a concern with the condition of the Register of Trade Marks. It is a concern that it have “integrity”[9] and that it be “pure”[10]. It is a “public mischief” if the Register is not pure[11], for there is “public interest in [its] purity”[12]. The concern and the public interest, viewed from the angle of consumers, is to ensure that the Register is maintained as an accurate record of marks which perform their statutory function – to indicate the trade origins of the goods to which it is intended that they be applied[13].

This objective was balanced by a need to stop the courts being clogged by, and trade mark owners being vexed by, busybodies. At [27], their Honours noted:

While the Act offers these facilities for ensuring that the Register is pure in the sense that no mark is to be registered unless valid, and no registration of a mark is to continue if it is not valid, the purpose of ensuring purity exists alongside another purpose. That is the purpose of preventing the security of the Register from being eroded by applications for rectification or removal by busybodies or “common informers or strangers proceeding wantonly”[15] or persons without any interest in the Register or the functions it serves beyond gratifying an intellectual concern or reflecting “merely sentimental motives”[16]. Applications of that kind, by clogging up and causing delay in the courts, would cause an unnecessary cloud to hang over registrations. The purpose of avoiding this outcome is reflected in the standing requirements in ss 88 and 92. Applications by persons who are not aggrieved are positively inimical to the fulfilment of the statutory purposes through the Register.

The Full Federal Court from which the appeal was brought had erred by adopting the rule laid down in Kraft v Gaines, that the exhaustive test for standing included a requirement that trader could, or might reasonably, wish to use the mark under challenge.

Crennan J delivered a concurring opinion. Her Honour differed from the majority in considering that an aggrieved person must be affected by the wrongly registered trade mark. Her Honour accepted that Health World satisfied that test. However, Crennan J considered at [61] “it is not essential to the resolution of these appeals to decide that it is sufficient for “a person aggrieved” to prove no more than trade rivalry with the registrant of the trade mark sought to be removed.”

As a result of this ruling, it would seem that Shin Sun’s trade mark would be removed from the Register on the trial judge‘s findings that Shin Sun did not intend to use or authorise the use of the trade mark (s 59(a)) and Shin Sun had allowed the trade mark to become deceptive or confusing (s 88(2)(c)). Health World second action for removal for non-use under s 92 would also succeed.

Health World Ltd v Shin-Sun Australia Pty Ltd [2010] HCA 13