On the face of it, Red Bull and Deutsche Telekom have only little in common. While the incumbent former telecoms monopolist struggles hard to reverse the trend of a steadily declining clientele, Red Bull's sales of its Energy Drink have been growing at a breathtaking pace. When it comes to trade marks, however, they face a similar problem.
Both companies are owners of colour trademarks consisting of two colours (CTM 000212753 for Deutsche Telekom, and CTM 002534774 for Red Bull), and both colour trademarks are being attacked on the grounds that they do not meet the criteria set by the Community Trademark Regulation, more specifically Art. 4 of the Regulation, which reads as follows,
A Community trade mark may consist of any signs capable of being represented graphically (...).
and Art 7 , according to which
1. The following shall not be registered:
(a) signs which do not conform to the requirements of Article 4
One may wonder why these marks have been registered in the first place, if they do not conform to these requirements However, as mentioned earlier, the troubles for owners of colour trademarks are fairly new. They stem from a 2004 decision by the ECJ, which ruled, in respect of abstract colour marks consisting of two or more colours, that
a graphic representation consisting of two or more colours, designated in the abstract and without contours, must be systematically arranged by associating the colours concerned in a predetermined and uniform way."
Trademark owners all over Europe have been asking themselves what to make of this. Whilst they were still thinking, some malevolent competitors have filed invalidity actions: XL Energy Marketing Sp. z o.o. and Boost Drinks Ltd. in the case of Red Bull, O2 - one of Germany's big four mobile telecoms network operator - in the case of Deutsche Telekom. While Red Bull's competitors seem to haven an own interest in using the colours for their products, O2's motivation appears to be purely altruistic. Its corporate colour has been navy blue ever since it took over the former network operator VIAG Interkom.
The prevailing question in the briefs exchanged by the parties before the OHIM seems to be whether the conditions for registration of a mark have to be met at the time of registration only, or whether a subsequent change in the interpretation of the law (the Community Trademark Regulation), triggered by the much-discussed Heidelberger judgment in the instance, shall affect the validity of the registration. The law offers no clear guidance:
Article 51: Absolute grounds for invalidity
1. A Community trade mark shall be declared invalid on application to the Office or on the basis of a counterclaim in infringement proceedings,
(a) where the Community trade mark has been registered contrary to the provisions of Article 7 (...)
The parties are now fighting over whether the marks should not have been registered by OHIM had it been aware of the "correct" interpretation of the law (in which case the mark may be subject to cancellation for invalidity), or whether the registration of the mark was in accordance with the law at that time. Deutsche Telekom understandably argues that the ECJ's decision marks a change in the law itself, whereas O2 argues that a change of interpretation does not alter the law as such.
The question as such is highly interesting: Can a trademark that was registered in line with the legal requirements of the time of its registration be declared invalid on the grounds that the interpretation of the law changed through the years? That would effectively render a huge amount of trademarks vulnerable to cancellation. It would create a considerable legal incertainty as to the validity of trademark rights, the avoidance of which is the very raison d'être of registered trademarks. Each and every new ECJ judgment on the registrability of signs would trigger a series of new cancellation actions. It remains to be seen how OHIM and - in all likelihood, unless the matters are settled - the CFI (and eventually even the ECJ) respond to that question.
By the way, it is interesting to see how much Deutsche Telekom, notorious for its huge trademark budget, is investing into the defence of its two-colour trademark when it owns a single colour CTM trademark (001353358) for the colour magenta, which it has so far widely used and enforced quite successfully. The infringement action of Deutsche Telekom against Mobilcom, a mobile communcations reseller, led to two landmark judgments (here and here) by the Federal Court of Justice, Germany's highest civil court, on the enforceability of trademarks (albeit based on the national German registration). Its interest in this action may therefore be more academical, after all.
Not so for Red Bull, whose colour mark has repeatedly given it wings in its enforcement campaign. A cancellation of the mark would probably leave it with a nasty hangover. Not something Red Bull people are likely to be used to.