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)  ?

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