Trade mark licensing problems

Trident Seafoods has failed to get Trident Foods’ registrations for TRIDENT removed for non-use, but only because Gleeson J exercised her Honour’s discretion against removal.

Trident Foods has had TRIDENT registered for fish and fish products in class 29 since 1973, TM No. 266,625 and, since 1983, for meat, fish, poultry and various extracts, preservatives and pickles, TM No. 400,953.

Trident Seafoods was founded in the USA in 1973. It is apparently the largest seafood distributor in North America. It uses and has registrations all round the world – except for Australia and New Zealand – the trade marks “Trident Seafoods” and a stylised logo incorporating those words. It has been marketing its products in Australia since 2007 under the trade mark “Bountiful”, but its attempt to register “Trident Seafoods” has been blocked by Trident Foods’ prior registrations. It brought an action under s 92(4)(b) to remove those blocking registrations on the grounds of non-use. The non-use period was 7 January 2011 to 7 January 2014.

There is a good chance you have, or have had, some TRIDENT condiments on your shelf, but here’s the thing. Since at least 2000, Trident Foods did not itself manufacture and sell TRIDENT branded products. The products were manufactured and sold by Manassen Foods Australia. Trident Foods claimed Manassen’s use was use as an authorised user.[1] Gleeson J, however, rejected this claim but, as noted above, decided it was appropriate to exercise the discretion under s 101(3) not to order removal.

Manassen was not an authorised user

There was no written licence agreement between Trident Foods and Manassen until 3 November 2017.[2]

In addition to that licensing arrangement, Trident Foods relied on the corporate relationship with Manassen, the involvement in their respective businesses of two common directors and Manassen’s compliance with the Bright Food Group’s quality assurance manual.

Trident Foods is a wholly owned subsidiary of Manassen (and both are members of the same corporate group, the ultimate holding company of which is Bright “Cayman Islands”). Nonetheless, Trident Foods relied on the essentially pragmatic approach applied by the Registrar:[3]

There is nothing unusual in a large company such as Henry Schein, Inc and/or its predecessors (that is “the Company” as defined earlier) incorporating a wholly owned subsidiary in order to hold its worldwide trade mark (or, for that matter, patent or other IP right) portfolio. It is very common practice” because, inter alia, it efficiently streamlines processes for the prosecution and renewal of properties in the portfolio and it avoids the need to record name changes, mergers or assignments around the world should the parent company restructure or change names.

Gleeson J rejected this. Based on the Henschke v Rosemount and the Lodestar v Campari cases, her Honour held at [84] that “control” for the purposes of authorised use required “actual control” “as a matter of substance”.

The corporate relationship between Trident Foods and Manassen did not provide that. At [100(1)]: Gleeson J explained:

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.

Trident Foods led evidence from a Ms Swanson, one of the two directors:

We have always maintained control over Manassen from the point of view of [Trident Foods’] as we have fiduciary obligations to act in the interest of [Trident Foods]. One of the things that has been considered, at least by me, since appointment as a director of Trident, is the quality and standard of the goods being sold under [Trident Foods’] trade mark registrations. As a director of Manassen, I appreciate the high standard of the goods that are sold by this company. As such, I have never had any cause for concern regarding the damage that could occur to the TRIDENT brand owned by [Trident Foods]. If there ever was a suggestion that poor quality goods were to be sold under [Trident Foods’] TRIDENT brand, I would be empowered and authorised to prevent such an occurrence.

Ms Swanson also gave evidence that Manassen had to comply with the Bright Food Group’s vendor quality management system (the VQM Manual) which was in place to maintain quality measures over all of the Group’s brands. In addition, she participated each month in meetings of Manassen’s “Innovation Council” which decided what products Manassen would sell, including “Trident” products, and were concerned with brand valuation and impairment to ensure that the brand was performing well and to avoid devaluation.

Gleeson J considered this was inadequate to establish actual control. Trident Seafoods argued that the directors would be in breach of their fiduciary duties to Manassen if they sought to exercise quality control over its operations on behalf of Trident Foods. Thankfully, Gleeson J did not accept this in terms. Rather, it seems Ms Swanson’s evidence was insufficient because it was at the level of assertion, without demonstrating examples of control being exercised by Trident Foods. At [100] points (2) – (6), her Honour explained:

(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.

Finally, Gleeson J was not prepared to find there had in fact been an unwritten licence agreement in place as claimed in the recitals to the 2017 document. The claim was inconsistent with the evidence of how things had actually operated.

It is not possible to tell from the judgment what the contents of the VQM Manual were. One must wonder, however, whether much would really be gained by requiring the directors of Trident Foods to have met and formally adopted the relevant parts of the VQM Manual (assuming there were any) as the quality standards that Manassen needed to comply with and, further, to meet formally as directors of Trident Foods and approve changes to any applicable quality standards or even to meet at regular intervals to consider whether Manassen was complying with quality standards they had prescribed. Unless a subsidiary can never exercise control of its parent or a related body corporate that was not a subsidiary, nonetheless, it would seem that level of formalism is required.

Her Honour’s approach may be compared to that of Nicholas J in Dunlop v Goodyear at [88] and [121]. Of course, in that case the trade mark was owned by the parent, not the subsidiary; there seem to have been numerous written agreements in place and some evidence of head office (i.e., the parent) issuing instructions about the business and the use of the trade marks in the business.

As already indicated, Gleeson J went on to exercise the discretion not to remove Trident Foods’ registrations. In what is already an overly long post, that and some other points of interest will have to await consideration another day.

Trident Seafoods Corporation v Trident Foods Pty Limited [2018] FCA 1490


  1. As you know, under s 7(3), authorised use of a trade mark by a person is taken to be use of the trade mark by the registered owner. And, under s 8 a person is an authorised user of a trade mark if that person uses the trade mark under the control of the trade mark owner. Section 8(3) and (4) provide that “control” may be “quality control” or “financial control”, although s 8(5) does provide that s 8(3) and (4) do not limit the meaning of “under the control of”.  ?
  2. The recitals stated that there had been an unwritten licence agreement between them since 2000 and this document reflected the parties’ wish to reduce the terms of their licence to writing. Apparently, in reliance on Film Investment Corporation of New Zealand Ltd (Receiver Appointed) v Golden Editions Pty Ltd [1994] FCA 11; (1994) 28 IPR 1 at 15; Black & Decker Inc at [147] and [148]; Allam at [430] and [431].  ?
  3. HS TM, LLC v Schein Orthopadie-Service KG [2016] ATMO 63 at [23]; heard before Lodestar, but decided afterwards.  ?

DGTEK v Digiteck II

For DGTEK v Digiteck I, see here.

Non-use

Lander J considered that the goods covered by Hills’ registration should be limited as a result of non-use for the statutory period of 3 continuous years under s 92.

One interesting point on this part of the case is that Bitek had sought removal of all goods in its original application for removal. It accepted that evidence filed by Hills showed use in relation to some goods. Hills argued therefore the non-use application must fail since the application was directed to all goods.

Lander J rejected that argument:

[279] Because Bitek was seeking to remove “all of the goods” for non-use, Hills submitted that it was required to rebut the allegation of non-use of all of those goods. Hills argued that the evidence demonstrated use of the DGTEC trade mark in respect of several products including televisions, DVD players, CD players, decoders and cameras. On this basis, it argued that the application should be dismissed.
[280] In the alternative, Hills argued that Bitek could not alter its position or limit its application as an application for removal under s 92(2) is required to be in an approved form: reg 9.1 of the Regulations. The only application for removal in approved form is the initial application in which Bitek seeks to remove “all of the goods” in respect of which the trade mark is registered.
[281] Hills also said that Bitek should not be allowed to limit its application because to do so would lead to a denial of procedural fairness. …

Following a review of the cases, Lander J rejected these arguments:

[295] Hills’ argument that if the Court considered Bitek’s argument that the class of goods should be narrowed would result in a denial of procedural fairness should be rejected. Bitek’s concession means that it cannot have the relief it sought in the application but in seeking to argue that it is entitled to have the restricted relief it is thereby narrowing the scope of the inquiry. In those circumstances it could not be a denial of procedural fairness to allow the matter to proceed by reference to a narrower class of goods.

[296] I also reject Hills’ submission that the application must fail because there is evidence of use of some of its goods. I accept Bitek’s argument that the Court may exercise its discretion under s 101(2) to narrow the scope of the registration where the applicant establishes that a ground exists in relation to only some of the goods to which the application relates.

The power to excise some, but not all goods, was consistent with the policy of Part 9: to ensure that Register (and freedom to trade) was not cluttered with unused marks: [304] and consistent with the terms of s 101(2).

Lander J then refused to exercise a discretion against non-removal, apparently on the basis that any reputation that had been generated in respect of the goods on which there had been use did not spill over on to the goods for which there had not been use:

Bitek submitted that s 101(3) does not save Hills’ registration because there is no evidence of use of similar or closely related goods. The only evidence of use relates to a limited group of products which Bitek mainly excluded from its application for removal.

[316] In my opinion, Hills’ argument should be rejected. The fact that it has used its mark in respect of goods which are similar to those goods marketed by Bitek is not in my opinion to the point.

[317] The circumstance which is addressed in s 101(4) is whether Hills has used the mark in respect of similar goods to those to which the application relates. In Hills’ case it has not used the goods except in relation to set-top boxes, remote controls, digital video recorders with hard drive, televisions, CD and MP3 players, DVD players, micro sound systems, iPod docking speakers and web-based cameras. I do not think there is any evidence to suggest any use of any similar goods to those proved used by Hills which ought to be retained in the statement of goods.

Perhaps rather surprisingly given the finding of non-use in respect of some products, Lander J considered Hills’ specification of goods should be amended to read:

Digital and electronic products including set top boxes, remote controls, digital video recorders with hard drive, televisions, CD and MP3 players, DVD players, micro sound systems, iPod docking speakers and web-based cameras. (my emphasis)

Infringement

Lander J accepted he was bound be the decision in Gallo that removal of a mark for non-use operated only from the date of removal of the mark from the Register.

Bitech admitted it had used DIGITECH since 2003 in respect ofantennas, cables (including speaker, coaxial, data and security), plasma TV brackets, leads, AV switch selectors, connectors, wall plates of various types, splitters, TV mounting hardware, video senders, video intercoms, industry tools, remote controls, multi-switches, set-top boxes, cable ties and cable clips.

Ultimately, his Honour found that Bitek infringed by reason of its use on set-top boxes and remote controls, but not the other products.

Consistently with his Honour’s earlier findings, DIGITECH was of course deceptively similar to DGTECH. Apart from set-top boxes and remote controls, the goods for which Bitek had used its trade mark were either covered by its own (now) registration (s 122(1)(fa)) – and all use had been after the application date – or were not shown to be within the scope of Hills’ registration or goods of the same description. S 120(3) also could not be invoked as Hills’ trade mark was not well-known.

Hills Industries Limited v Bitek Pty Ltd [2011] FCA 94

Satellite broadcast and trade mark use

In a further round of the Food Channel / Network war, Greenwood J has accepted that the inclusion of the trade mark on programming broadcast by ABC Asia Pacific is use of the trade mark in Australia.

ABC Asia Pacific is primarily intended to transmit ABC programming into countries in the Asia Pacific region. Depending on the satellite, however, Australia or large parts of mainland Australia fell within the transmission footprint and not on the periphery. As the ABC Asia Pacific transmissions were free-to-air, the transmissions could be received and viewed by members of the Australian public who installed appropriate satellite dishes and there was evidence before his Honour of businesses operating in Australia which sold and installed the necessary equipment.

As a result, his Honour found that the trade mark was used in relation to the television production services in class 41 for which it was registered. However, the trade mark was not used in relation to the class 38 services of television broadcasting – ABC Asia Pacific was the broadcaster.

Food Channel Network Pty Ltd v Television Food Network G.P. [2010] FCA 703