Businesses often choose a trade mark that exactly describes their business or product eg Smith & Co Plumbing, being the plumbing business run by Mr Smith. There is nothing wrong with this. The name is easy to remember and easily searchable. If the business is likely to remain a small, family owned business that will never take legal action against anyone else with a similar name, it is a perfectly satisfactory name.
However, if the business has ambitions to grow and may wish to stake out its territory against similar businesses, a descriptive mark is perhaps not such a good idea. This is because names that are descriptive (Plumbing) as well as names that include common surnames (Smith) are generally not registrable as trade marks before the Trade Marks Office. Even if they do achieve registration (eg because of long and extensive use eg McDonalds) the registration may provide only limited protection against a business with a similar name because small differences may be sufficient to distinguish the two businesses. The reason is that, as a matter of policy, trade marks law does not allow businesses to monopolise common names and words that other traders are likely to want to use as trade marks.
I acted in a trade mark opposition against an application for the logo mark: for non-alcoholic drinks. Although the application was accepted by the Trade Marks Examiner, the decision was overturned because the word “ICY” was a synonym of the word “cold” and so descriptive of a cold drink. The word could not work as a trade mark because other traders would want to use the mark or something similar for cold drinks.
Similar difficulties apply to descriptive words used as trade marks even if they are not registered. The Sydney Building Information Centre Ltd tried to stop another company, Hornsby Building Information Centre Pty. Ltd., from using its name. Customers were confused about whether the two were connected. However, the High Court held that the problem arose not because of any misleading conduct by the Hornsby Centre, but because the Sydney Centre had chosen such a descriptive name in the first place.
The best trade mark is a mark that has an indirect reference to the business/goods or services but is sufficiently clever/vague that it does not directly describe them eg TUB HAPPY for washable clothes.
Please contact me here if you need advice on the registrability of a proposed trade mark or the invalidity of a registered trade mark.
This blog entry provides general information only, and is not intended as legal advice specific to your circumstances. Please seek the advice of a legal professional if you have any particular questions.
© Margaret Ryan, Melbourne, Australia, 2019