NAB’s reputation takes it over the bridge

In the Registrar’s decision of National Australia Bank Limited [2020] ATMO 41 (19 March 2020), National Australia Bank (“NAB”) have successfully relied upon the their significant reputation in Australia to overcome citations of prior rights and secure acceptance of the composite logo mark (“NAB Logo mark”) shown below.  The Registrar followed the previous decision of the Full Federal Court in Registrar of Trade Marks v Woolworths [1999] FCA 1020, which held that in certain circumstances, an applicant’s reputation may be considered as a “surrounding circumstance” when determining whether two marks should be regarded as “deceptively similar”.

 

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NAB applied to register the NAB Logo mark for a wide range of goods and services.  The Examiner raised an objection against this mark under Section 44, on the basis that it was too similar to four earlier registrations and covered the same or similar goods and services. Each of the earlier cited registrations were comprised of the plain words “THE BRIDGE” and covered goods and services that are the same or similar to those covered by the NAB Logo mark (although, while not noted in the decision, the only same goods or services concerned philosophical education and certain personal services).  After several failed attempts to persuade the Examiner to reconsider this objection (on the basis of written submissions), NAB filed a request for this matter to be heard by the Registrar.

When assessing whether the NAB Logo mark is substantially identical with or deceptively similar to each of THE BRIDGE marks, the Registrar applied the traditional test for the comparison of marks as outlined in Shell Co of Australia Ltd v Esso Standard Oil (Australia) Ltd.  The Registrar also took guidance from the comments of Jacobson J in Millennium & Copthorne International Limited v Kingsgate Hotel Group Pty Ltd with respect to the various historical principles outlined in past authorities as follows:

Without seeking to reformulate the various statements of principle stated in the Full Court authorities, it is sufficient for present purposes to identify the critical elements which seem to me to inform the issue of deceptive similarity in the present case. There are nine elements.

First, the judgement of likelihood of deception is a practical one. It requires an assessment of the effect of the challenged mark on the minds of potential customers.

Second, the question of deceptive similarity is not to be decided by a side-by-side comparison. It is to be determined by a comparison of the impression based on recollection of the opponent’s mark that persons of ordinary intelligence and memory would have, and the impression that those persons would get from the opposed trade mark.

Third, allowance must be made for imperfect recollection.

Fourth, the effect of the spoken description must be considered.

Fifth, it is necessary to show a real tangible danger of deception or confusion.

Sixth, a trade mark is likely to ‘cause confusion’ if the result of its use will be that a number of persons are ‘caused to wonder’ whether the two products come from the same source.

Seventh, all surrounding circumstances must be taken into consideration. The circumstances include those in which the marks will be used, and in which the goods or services will be bought and sold, as well as the character of the probable acquirers of the goods and services.

Eighth, the question of whether there is a likelihood of confusion is not to be answered by reference to the manner in which a party has used the mark, but by reference to what an applicant can do. That is to say, the use to which it can properly put the mark if registration is obtained.

Ninth, if a registered trade mark includes words which can be regarded as an ‘essential feature’ of the mark, another mark that incorporates those words may cause a tangible danger of deception or confusion by reason of consumers retaining an imperfect recollection of those words. However, care must be taken to not too readily characterise words in a composite trade mark as an ‘essential feature’ because to do so may effectively convert a composite mark into something different.

Reference was also made to comments by French J in the Woolworths decision (see above), where it was held:

reference to the familiarity of the name ‘Woolworths’ in Australia was appropriate. Where an element of a trade mark has a degree of notoriety or familiarity of which judicial notice can be taken, as is the present case, it would be artificial to separate out the physical features of the mark from the viewer’s perception of them. For in the end the question of resemblance is about how the mark is perceived. In the instant case the visual impact of the name ‘Woolworths’ cannot be assessed without a recognition of its notorious familiarity to consumers.

The Hearing Officer concurred with NAB’s assertion that the NAB Logo is as well-known as “WOOLWORTHS” and there was nothing before the Hearing Officer which obviously distinguishes that case (Woolworths) from the present matter.  On this basis, the Registrar held that the NAB Logo mark was not substantially identical or deceptively similar to the earlier THE BRIDGE marks and accepted it for potential registration.

The decision is short on detail and while not stated specifically, it seems that NAB’s mark was accepted as well-known simply on the basis of general knowledge, rather than evidence. As NAB is a well-known bank, the extent to which that reputation is relevant in respect of the cases of the direct conflict with services covered by the prior registrations, namely ‘Courses, lectures and seminars on philosophical subjects’ and ‘Personal care services (non-medical nursing assistance); Providing non-medical assisted living services for personal purposes’ is debatable. However, the Hearing Officer seems to have accepted it as sufficient, irrespective of the nature of the services.

When examining a trade mark for potentially conflicting rights under Section 44, Australian examiners do not consider the “reputation” of the respective marks involved in their initial assessment.  However, where one particular element of a trade mark has a high degree of notoriety or familiarity to Australian consumers, the owner’s reputation in that element may be considered as a “surrounding circumstance” when determining whether or not two marks are “deceptively similar”.  While the degree of notoriety or familiarity required by a trade mark is not entirely clear, and examiners will typically need this to be proved, it is reasonable to conclude that the owner must have made lengthy and widespread use of the relevant mark in Australia, such that most Australian consumers are familiar with the mark and its owner.