Posts on this blog represent my opinion. It may be my considered opinion on the basis of my formal study of law and technology. But it is not legal advice. It must not be treated as, or acted upon as, legal advice and no liability is accepted for doing so.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Hoffman on Laddie on Trade Marks

I've writter before about the legacy of Sir Hugh (formerly Mr Justice) Laddie, and his contribution to the development of IP law. This evening saw the first Sir Hugh Laddie Lecture at the Institute of Brand and Innovation Law he founded at UCL, featuring Lord Hoffman on the topic of Sir Hugh's dealings with the ECJ on the question of what exactly was the function of a trade mark.

It was a very good talk, and a fitting tribute to Sir Hugh. As Lord Hoffman readily admitted, it did not contain much in the way of radical revelation into trade mark law. Rather, he sought to trace the development of the tension between the English and European courts as to trade mark function via a series of cases in which Laddie J (as he then was) had been involved.

Now, it was clear from this that Lord Hoffman was setting out to tell us a story, and when you are being told a story it's important to bear in mind that the narrator will inevitably be imposing some sort of narrative structure and goal on it, if only to make sure that it is a story. Here, the narrative was very much the doughty English judge defending the traditional view of a trademark purely as a badge of origin against the encroaching European tide of wider trade mark function. This isn't to say that Lord Hoffman is anti-European; rather, he was to an extent telling the story of how a friend of his had done battle to preserve the understanding of what a trade mark was for that had dominated English IP law since the 1938 Trade Mark Act. That Act had made it clear that a trade mark had one role and one role alone: to indicate to a buyer where goods had originated. The 1994 Trade Mark Act, by implementing the common EC Directive on trade mark law, imported a new approach with more than a whiff of the traditional Benelux approach of viewing a trade mark as having aspects more akin to a brand.

Matters came to a head with the famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) case of Arsenal v Reed. It was clear from Lord Hoffman's summary of the facts where his sympathies lay; as he put it, by selling scarves bearing the word (and trade mark) 'Arsenal', Mr Reed was simply saving his customers from scrawling the club's name on a blank scarf rather than asserting that his goods originated with the Gunners. Laddie J had felt much the same way, but had been obliged to refer the point to the ECJ. The A-G's Opinion had been sympathetic, and the ECJ had seemingly taken it aboard - but then found that in the current case, Mr Reed's actions in fact were trading on the reputation of Arsenal's trade mark. When the case returned to England, Laddie J promptly held that the ECJ had made a finding of fact - which was his job - and for the first and apparently only time anywhere refused to follow the ECJ. The Court of Appeal later took a rather more diplomatic (I've heard other words used) approach, and in the end Mr Reed lost. But Arsenal v Reed - along with cases on repackaging of drugs - brought home how much the 1994 Act had changed trade mark law, and how difficult it was to preserve the traditional narrow interpretation in English law of the function of a trade mark.

So what do we take from this? As I said, Lord Hoffman's narrative was clear. I can imagine of course a corresponding talk by a senior ECJ jurist taking, as its narrative thread, the steady exposure of England's old-fashioned and eccentric interpretation of what a trade mark was for in the face of sensible efforts to harmonise European law in this area. But it's hard to disagree with Lord Hoffman's closing comment that if, in implementing the Trade Marks Directive, Parliament had meant such a fundamental change away from a narrow right towards broader protection of what are in effect brands, then it should have clearly said so. All in all, an interesting and thought-provoking evening, and I hope that the Laddie Lecture goes on the way it started.


Shibs said...

I was wondering about your views on unresolved issues in the law to do with the repackaging of drugs?

Shibs said...

Further to my last comment, may I say how much I enjoyed the sound file of the lecture on the UCL website. I don't mind at all if an answer to my previous question does not trip off thetongue, but I must say that the relationship between the English higher courts and the ECJ seem to be in so much flux that I am not yet confident that it is easy to predict the outcome of cases(e.g. repackaging of drugs). I am worried that, with the passing away of Sir Hugh Laddie, we will not have a "voice" for the English law that can defend the original purpose of the trade mark in England.