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.  ?

Luscious Lips confectionary

Sundberg J has dismissed Nature’s Blend’s action against Nestlé for infringement of its LUSCIOUS LIPS trade mark, passing off and misleading or deceptive conduct by selling Allens RETRO PARTY MIX.

Nature’s Blend, which was principally a supplier of veterinary products registered LUSCIOUS LIPS in respect of confectionery. Initially, at least, it gave chocolates away branded with the trade mark and a device to promote its business.

Around the same time as Nature’s Blend began marketing products with its trade mark, Nestlé introduced a new product under its ALLENS brand called ‘RETRO PARTY MIX’. This was a box or packet of mixed lollies. The back of the packaging included the following:

That’s right! All your favourites are back, so put on those flares and get ready to party! Up to 7 lolly varieties including…cool Cola Bottles, those radical Racing Cars, yummy Honey flavoured Bears, totally freeeekie Teeth, luscious Lips, partying Pineapples and outrageous Raspberries. [emphasis added]

The “luscious” Lips were a jelly product in the shape of lips.

Sundberg J found that the words used in this setting were not used as a trade mark. First, because the word “luscious” was descriptive and in context consumers would be likely to regard the expression as laudatory and possibly even humorous. Secondly, the effect of the combined expression in context was diluted by the prominence of the Allens, RETRO PARTY MIX and Nestlé trade marks.

Sundberg J would also have found, if necessary, that Nestlé was using the term as a good faith description: Nestlé’s product manager explained the development of the name in terms which made it clear she had been unaware of Nature’s Blend’s trade mark or product.

Interestingly, at [13] Sundberg J also considered it clear that the relevant time for determining liability under s 52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cth) is the date when the respondent’s conduct started; the same as for trade mark infringement and passing off. Middleton J did not consider it necessary to decide the point in Playcorp v Bodum [2010] FCA 23 at [58]-[59].

Nature’s Blend Pty Ltd  v Nestle Australia Ltd [2010] FCA 198

Coffee plungers, tea pots, designs and passing off

The Federal Court, Middleton J, has rejected Bodum’s allegations that

  1. the sale of the Baccarat Venice coffee plunger and Euroline’s Classic coffee plunger passed off Bodum’s Chambord coffee plunger or was otherwise misleading or deceptive; or
  2. Baccarat’s Devon teapot passed off Bodum’s Assam Tea Press or was otherwise misleading or deceptive.

Playcorp Group of Companies Pty Ltd v Peter Bodum A/S [2010] FCA 23

The judgment includes depictions of the products and their packaging in the appendices.

Maltesers v Delfi malt balls

Mars’ appeal against the rejection of its claims of trade mark infringement and misleading or deceptive conduct have been tersely rejected.

Images of the product Mars complained about here.

The Full Court noted:

9     It is not in dispute that the evidence established that:
•    confectionary is commonly packaged in primary colours and that red, in various shades, is a predominant and common, indeed ubiquitous, colour;
•    confectionary packaging commonly displays a picture or representation of the product, frequently showing a cross-section or “cut through” of the product;
•    it is not unusual for the name of the product to be written on a diagonal, from bottom left to top right;
•    it is common for packaging of confectionary to include all of the above features.

In this context, the Full Court found that the words malt balls were descriptive and the colour red used by the respondent was not distinctive.

Mars Australia Pty Ltd v Sweet Rewards Pty Ltd [2009] FCAFC 174

Confidentiality, unconscionability and contract

Telstra and Optus have an interconnect agreement, in part to regulate how callers originating from one network get delivered to the other, charges and the like.

Optus successfully sued Telstra for misusing Optus’ confidential information under the agreement: information about call traffic between the two networks.

(You should look at that judgment as it illustrates the two-edged nature of many definitions of confidential information.)

In this part of the fight, Edmonds J declined to grant relief under the equitable obligation of confidence as the contractual obligations in question were comprehensive.

His Honour also explored the meaning of the prohibition on unconscionable conduct in s 51AA of the TPA, but declined to find a contravention in that context.

Optus Networks Ltd v Telstra Corporation Ltd (No. 3) [2009] FCA 728