The word yellow is descriptive of online directories

Telstra has lost its appeal in the “Yellow” case.

The Full Court upheld the trial judge’s conclusion that the word “yellow” lacked any capacity to distinguish print or online directories under (the old version of) s 41. However, the Full Court accepted that the word “yellow” had become sufficiently distinctive of Telstra by reason of use and promotion after the date of theĀ application that it would have been registrable if it had had some inherent capacity to distinguish.

Following the High Court’s ruling in “Oro/Cinque Stelle“, the Full Court agreed with the trial judge that the word “yellow” signifies the colour yellow and the evidence showed that the colour yellow signified print and online directories. Consequently, the word itself was descriptive. At [117], in considering the ordinary signification of the word, the Full Court said:

We would say at the outset that it was appropriate for Telstra to proceed on the basis that capacity to distinguish could not be decided by reference to inherent adaption alone even if the Court accepted all of its arguments. The word yellow describes a colour and, even without evidence, it would be appropriate to infer that at least some other traders might wish to use that colour. Furthermore, there was at the very least evidence in this case of not infrequent use of the colour yellow in connection with print and online directories.

The Full Court then considered that the evidence of use by other traders in print and online directories confirmed that consumers did in fact consider the word “yellow” descriptive of such directories. Like the trial judge, the Full Court took into account the usage of traders overseas as well as within Australia, although it may have been to support the good faith of the local traders’ use.

Survey and acquired distinctiveness – s 41(5)

If the word “yellow” had had some capacity to distinguish print and online directories, the Full Court would have allowed Telstra’s appeal that it had become sufficiently distinctive under s 41(5) by use after application. A 2008 survey (not the 2007 survey relied on by the primary judge) showed that after several years of use including millions of dollars of expenditure on advertising, at least 12% of the survey respondents identified (associated?) the word “yellow” with Telstra’s directory unprompted. A further 4%, making 16% in total, had similar unprompted association.

The Full Court distinguished British Sugar and held that would be sufficient. (The report does not disclose the terms of the question that elicited those responses.) Arguably, makes a nice contrast to the Oro/Cinque Stelle case.

What about .com.au

In dismissing a second, cross-appeal in which yellowbook.com.au was found to be deceptively similar to Telstra’s Yellow PagesĀ trade mark, the Full Court treated the domain name “accoutrement” .com.au as largely insignificant for the purposes of the deceptive similarity analysis.

The interesting point here is that the Full Court considered this may not always be the case. It was appropriate to disregard the element here in the context where the services were online directories and consumers were shown largely to disregard such elements.

The question of onus

The Full Court also seems to have resolved the ongoing disputes about the onus of proof. The Full Court held that the opponent has the onus of proving that a proposedĀ trade mark has no inherent capacity to distinguish. It further held that that onus was on the balance of probabilities, not the practically certain standard which some courts at first instance have applied.

Telstra Corporation Limited v Phone Directories Company Australia Pty Ltd [2015] FCAFC 156 (Besanko, Jagot and Edelman JJ)