Invalidity action: INPI’s assessment of relative grounds for invalidity

22/04/22
Invalidity action: INPI’s assessment of relative grounds for invalidity

April 1st, 2022 marks the second anniversary of the implementation of the new trademark litigation procedures before the INPI: invalidity actions, revocation actions, oppositions opened to new types of prior rights… This is the occasion to devote several articles to an assessment of the issues arising from the transfer of part of the French trademark litigation to the INPI.

1. Broadened relative grounds for invalidity

The new article L. 711-3 of the Intellectual Property Code (CPI)[1] broadens the relative grounds for invalidity of a trademark infringing prior rights enforceable in France[2] . This non-exhaustive list refers in particular to the following prior rights:

  • An identical or similar trademark designating identical or similar goods or services, provided that it can be shown that there is a likelihood of confusion in the mind of the public, including the likelihood of association (French trademark, EU trademark, international trademark designating France or the EU, well-known trademark or trademark application in these territories);
  • A trademark with a reputation in France or in the EU when it is identical or similar to the later trademark and when the use of the later trademark without just cause would take unfair advantage of, or be detrimental to, its distinctive character or its reputation;
  • A name or company name (subject to demonstrating the existence of a risk of confusion in the mind of the public);
  • A trade name, a sign or a domain name (provided that its scope is not only local and that there is a risk of confusion in the public mind);
  • A geographical indication (registered or pending) ;
  • Copyrights, rights resulting from a protected design, and personality rights of a third party (in particular the family name, pseudonym or image);
  • A name, image or reputation of a territorial authority or a public establishment of inter-municipal cooperation; and
  • The name of a public entity (provided there is a likelihood of confusion in the public mind).

New articles L. 716-2 II. and L. 716-5 I. of the CPI provide for an exclusive competence of the INPI in the matter of requests for invalidation of trademarks made on a principal basis, in particular when they are based on the relative grounds linked to the distinctive signs and territorial signs mentioned above (thus excluding copyrights, rights resulting from a protected design and personality rights which remain within the competence of the judicial courts).

 

 

2. Strict criteria of assessment resulting from European and French jurisprudence

Out of the relative grounds for invalidity mentioned above, the latest decisions rendered by the INPI mainly concern the conflict with a prior trademark (i), but also the infringement of a reputed trademark (ii) and the infringement of a corporate name and/or a domain name (iii).

 

2.1 Conflict with a prior trade mark 

The last decisions rendered by the INPI in 2022 have very largely resulted in at least partial cancellation of the contested trademarks[1] . These decisions include the main criteria of the EU case law. They adopt a structured and didactic presentation, following the example of the EUIPO, in order to assess successively :

  • Where applicable, evidence of genuine use of the prior trademark: the application for a declaration of invalidity is inadmissible if the prior trademark has not been put to genuine use during two uninterrupted periods of five years preceding, on the one hand, the application for a declaration of invalidity and, on the other hand, the filing of the contested trademark (the “double use” requirement)[2] . In this respect, the INPI takes into consideration all the facts and circumstances likely to establish the reality of the commercial exploitation of the prior trademark (uses considered justified in the economic sector concerned in order to maintain or create market shares for the benefit of the products or services protected by the trademark, nature of these products or services, characteristics of the market, extent and frequency of the use of the trademark)[3] . The INPI thus assesses in turn: the period of use, the place of use, the use by the owner or with his consent, the nature and extent of the use, and the use for the registered and invoked goods;
  • The existence of a risk of confusion between the goods and services: the INPI takes into account all the relevant factors that characterize the relationship between these goods and services, in particular, their nature, their purpose, their use as well as their competing or complementary character[4] ;
  • The existence of a likelihood of confusion between the signs: the INPI bases itself on the overall impression produced by the signs, taking into account their distinctive and dominant elements[5] , and takes into account the fact that the average consumer of the goods and services in question rarely has the possibility of making a direct comparison of the different marks, but must rely on the imperfect image that he or she has retained in his or her memory[6] ;
  • The relevant public: INPI takes into consideration the fact that the level of attention of the average consumer is likely to vary according to the category of goods and services in question[7] ;
  • Distinctive character of the earlier trademark: the INPI considers that the likelihood of confusion is higher if the earlier trademark has a significant distinctive character, either intrinsically or because of its knowledge by a significant part of the public concerned by the goods and services at issue[8] .

 

2.2 Infringement of a reputed trade mark

The Director General of the INPI has rendered several decisions to cancel trademarks in whole or in part on this basis (notably the well-known trademarks RICHARD MILLE, ELLE, TREK and PS5)[1] , by assessing the three cumulative criteria identified by the EU case law in this area[2] :

 

  • The existence of a reputation for the prior invoked trademark, which implies that it is known by a significant part of the public concerned for the goods or services it designates (INPI takes into account the market share held by the trademark, the intensity, the geographical extent and the duration of its use, and the importance of the investments made to promote it);
  • The comparison of the signs at issue and the link between them in the mind of the public (INPI takes into account the degree of similarity between the signs, the nature of the goods and services, the public concerned, the intensity of the reputation of the prior mark, the degree of intrinsic distinctiveness or acquired through use of the earlier mark and the existence of a risk of confusion in the mind of the public); and
  • Demonstration of the infringement of the reputation of the prior trademark (actual and current infringement or serious risk of such infringement occurring in the future, for example the risk of taking unfair advantage of the distinctive character or the reputation of the earlier trademark), and the absence of just cause to use the contested trademark.

 

2.3 Violation of a corporate name and/or domain name 

The new article L. 716-2-1 of the CPI specifies that an application for invalidity may be based on several prior rights (provided that they belong to the same owner).

 

The Director General of the INPI was thus able to reject a trademark invalidity application based on a company name and a domain name, as the applicant had not established the actual use of the rights invoked on the date of filing of the contested trademark[1] . This decision illustrates the importance of providing all the mandatory information when filing the application for a declaration of invalidity[2] , in particular the information allowing to identify the prior right(s) invoked and to define their scope.

 

Following the example of the EUIPO[3] , the INPI published in February 2022 its own “Guidelines for Invalidity and Revocation Proceedings” which specify for each relative ground of invalidity what indications are required to establish the existence, nature, origin and scope of the prior rights invoked[4] :

  • In the event of an infringement of a company name, the applicant must provide evidence of its use for the activities invoked on the date of filing of the contested trademark.[5] INPI relies here on the case law of the Court of Cassation, which considers that a company name is only protected “for the activities actually carried out by the company and not for those listed in its articles of association[6] ;
  • In case of infringement of a domain name, its registration alone is not sufficient and the documents must establish that it is operated in relation to the activities invoked in the form of an Internet site (effective operation of the site)[7] . INPI also relies on the jurisprudence of the Court of Cassation, which considers that the documents must demonstrate that the activity carried out on the website is directed towards the French public and not only accessible in France (criterion of the destination), and this, from a group of indications (use of the French language, prices in €, delivery in France, an extension in .fr, etc.)[8] . It is also necessary to demonstrate that the domain name was in use at the date of filing of the contested trademark and does not only have a local scope, in accordance with the case law of the CJEU, which specifies that the documents provided must prove that the sign is used “in a significant part of the territory” (geographical dimension: for example, invoices sent to customers located in several parts of the territory) and “in a sufficiently significant manner in the course of trade” (economic dimension: for example, sales figures, turnover, etc. [9]).

 

3. An accelerated and efficient procedure

This new procedure seems to encourage applications for trademark invalidity, in line with the objective of clearing the registers initiated by the 2019 ordinance[1] . While the number of legal actions for invalidity before the courts remained relatively limited[2] , statistics made public by INPI in February 2022[3] show that in just two years, nearly 410 applications for invalidity (most of them based on relative grounds) have already been filed.

 

Among the 400 decisions on invalidity or revocation rendered since the opening of this new procedure, 32% are decisions on the merits of invalidity, 30% are decisions on the merits of revocation, 32% are decisions of closure (lack of legitimate interest, agreement, withdrawal or cessation of effects of the contested trademark) and 6% are decisions of inadmissibility (lack of proof of use, abuse of rights, exclusive competence and presentation of the application).

 

This procedure has several advantages compared to the judicial route: the average total duration of the procedure for decisions on the merits is 8.2 months[4] , the fee applied by the INPI is 600 € plus 150 € for each additional prior right invoked, and the procedure takes place exclusively online (with, however, the possibility of presenting oral observations after the written adversarial phase)

 

Invalidations or revocations are pronounced in 88% of the decisions: the contested trademark was totally cancelled in 29% of the cases (against 34% for revocation), partially cancelled in 12% of the cases (against 13% for revocation), and the request for invalidation was rejected in 11% of the cases (against only 1% for revocation)

 

***

The decisions rendered since the ordinance came into force show that the INPI’s assessment of the relative grounds for invalidity appears to be broadly similar to that of the French courts and the EUIPO, thus confirming the need to meet strict cumulative conditions and to respect a precise formalism.

 

While this new administrative invalidity procedure has the advantage of being faster and less expensive than judicial proceedings, and of being able to be based on new prior rights, it is therefore advisable to remain particularly rigorous in the legal articulation of one’s requests, to justify precisely the concrete conditions of use of the signs invoked and to anticipate the defense of one’s trademarks by constituting solid proof of use files.

 

[1] Résultant de l’ordonnance n°2019-1169 du 13 novembre 2019 transposant la directive (UE) N° 2015/2436 du 16 décembre 2015.
[2] La demande en nullité peut être dirigée à l’encontre d’une marque française enregistrée ou d’une marque internationale désignant la France.
[3] Toutefois, le titulaire d’un droit antérieur qui a toléré l’usage qui a été fait de bonne foi de la marque postérieure pendant 5 années consécutives ne peut plus en demander la nullité.
[4] 73% d’annulation totale ou partielle pour les 11 décisions suivantes : INPI, 4 février 2022, LIGNOROC / LIGNO, NL 21-0012 (partiellement justifiée) ; INPI, 4 février 2022, ESSIE, NL 21-0133 (justifiée) ; INPI, 2 février 2022, MVEEPEE / VEEPEE, NL 21-0166 (justifiée) ; INPI, 1er février 2022, My Pure Novelty / mypure, NL 21-0160 (rejetée) ; INPI, 28 janvier 2022, LES BAINS DELI BIO / LES BAINS, NL 21-0165 (justifiée) ; INPI, 28 janvier 2022, DENUDE / D NU D, NL 21-0019 (justifiée) ; INPI, 24 janvier 2022, L’authentique / LOTHANTIQUE, NL 21-0146 (justifiée) ; INPI, 21 janvier 2022, C’EST MON DONUTS, NL 21-0127 (partiellement justifiée) ; INPI, 20 janvier 2022, RONDE DE NUIT / LA RONDE DE NUIT – PROTECTION – SECURITE, NL 21-0029 (rejetée) ; INPI, 11 janvier 2022, LOGINOV / LOCINOX, NL 21-0135 (rejetée) ; INPI, 4 janvier 2022, MARNIKAA / MARNI, NL 21-0096 (justifiée).
[5] Article L. 716-2-3 du CPI
[6] CJUE, 11 mars 2003, Ansul, C 40/01
[7] CJUE, 29 septembre 1998, Canon, C-39/97
[8] CJUE, 11 février 1997, Puma/Sabel, C-251/95
[9] CJUE, 22 juin 1999, Lloyd/Klijsen, C-342/97
[10] CJUE, 3 septembre 2009, Aceites del Sur-Coosur SA, C-498/07
[11] CJUE, 11 février 1997, Puma/Sabel, C-251/95 et CJUE, 29 septembre 1998, Canon, C-39/97.
[12] INPI, 22 décembre 2020, RICHARD MILLE, NL 20-0009 (recours en réformation rejeté par CA Paris, 11 février 2022, RG 21/05616) ; INPI, 13 janvier 2021, ELLE, NL 20-0037 ; INPI, 20 octobre 2021, TREK, NL 20-0120 ; INPI, 14 juin 2021, PS5, NL 20-0044.
[13] CJUE, 14 septembre 1999, General Motors, C-375/97 et CJUE, 27 novembre 2008, Intel Corporation Inc., C-252/07.
[14] INPI, 8 mars 2021, NL 20-0033, AUTHENTIK IMMO : cette décision a fait l’objet d’un recours en réformation (et non en annulation) permettant à la Cour d’appel de Nancy d’apprécier de nouvelles pièces et la conduisant à reconnaître (i) l’exploitation réelle des droits invoqués, (ii) la portée non seulement locale du nom de domaine, (iii) l’atteinte aux droits antérieurs ; et (iv) l’annulation partielle de la marque (CA Nancy, 13 décembre 2021, RG 21/00757).
[15] Article R. 716-1 du CPI et Article 4-1 1° de la décision du Directeur général de l’INPI n°2020-35 du 1er avril 2020.
[16] Partie D : Annulation des Directives relatives à l’examen des marques de l’Union Européenne.
[17] Directives relatives à la procédure en nullité et en déchéance publiées en février par l’INPI (page 14 à 20).
[18] Voir par exemple les récentes décisions de rejet : INPI, 26 janvier 2022, Château d’Origny, NL 21-0136 et INPI, 18 janvier 2022, Valorterre / Valoterre, NL 21-0004.
[19] Cass. Comm., 10 juillet 2012, Cœur de princesse, RG 08-12010
[20] Voir par exemple la récente décision de rejet : INPI, 13 janvier 2022, Go Kakapo / kakapo.paris, NL 21-0043
[21] Cass. com., 20 septembre 2011, eBay, RG 10-16.569
[22] CJUE, 19 avril 2018, Fiesta Hôtels, C-75/17
[23] Rapport au Président de la République relative à l’ordonnance 2019-1169 du 13 novembre 2019 relative aux marques de produits ou de services
[24] La nullité d’une marque est le plus souvent demandée à titre reconventionnel en réponse à une action en contrefaçon.
[25] Comité de suivi PI Marques – Dessins et modèles, INPI Professionnels de la PI, 4 février 2022
[26] A l’issue d’une phase contradictoire au cours de laquelle les parties sont amenées à échanger des observations écrites intervenant tous les deux mois, le Directeur général de l’INPI dispose d’un délai de 3 mois pour rendre une décision.
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