No sooner did I predict the new gTLD Legal Rights Objection would not produce any prevailing complainants in this application round, then I’ve been proved wrong.
A three-person WIPO panel yesterday delivered a majority-verdict win for Del Monte, which had filed an LRO against its licensee, .delmonte new gTLD applicant Fresh Del Monte.
It’s a complex case, but the panelists’ thinking appears to be consistent with previously decided LROs.
Del Monte is the original owner of the Del Monte brand, with rights going back to the nineteenth century and registered trademarks all over the world.
Fresh Del Monte has used the Del Monte brand under license from the other company since 1989.
Fresh Del Monte also acquired a South African trademark for “Del Monte” in October 2011, but the panel viewed this with suspicion, wondering aloud whether it had been obtained just to bolster its new gTLD application.
The panel also wondered whether acquiring the mark may have been a breach of the two firms’ longstanding licensing agreement.
The circumstances behind the South African trademark were enough to convince two of the three panelists that there was “something untoward” about Fresh Del Monte’s behavior.
That was a crucial factor in the decision (pdf), with the panel citing earlier LRO precedent to the effect that there must be some kind of bad faith present by the applicant in order for an LRO to succeed.
But the most important factor, according to the decision, was the “likelihood of confusion” element of the LRO. The panelists wrote:
From the crucial perspective of the average consumer, and notwithstanding the somewhat complicated licensing arrangements, the coexistence of the parties’ products in certain territories, and the similarity of the parties’ coexisting food products, the evidence shows that the Trade Mark has continued to function as an indicator of the commercial origin of the Objector and its goods (whether the Objector’s direct goods, or licensed goods).
They’re not wrong. Both companies sell canned fruit and vegetables and use the same logo. It’s virtually impossible for the average guy in the street to tell the difference between the two.
Having been exposed to the Del Monte brand for as long as I can remember, having read the LRO decision, and having visited both companies’ web sites, I still couldn’t tell you which company’s canned pineapple I’ve been ignoring on supermarket shelves all these years.
But the decision was not unanimous. Dissenting panelist Robert Badgley agreed with most of the panel’s findings but thought they hadn’t given enough weight to Fresh Del Monte’s South African trademark.
The panel, he suggested, hadn’t looked closely enough at the circumstances of the trademark rights being acquired because it hadn’t allowed additional submissions on that point.
Basically, the decision seems to have been made on partial evidence. Badgley wrote:
I am prepared to conclude that it is more likely than not that Respondent owns the DEL MONTE mark in South Africa and its use of that mark has been bona fide. This conclusion is critical to my ultimate view that Objector has failed to carry its burden of proof and therefore the Objection should be overruled.
He also noted that the two companies, with their matching brands, had been coexisting for 24 years under their licensing arrangement.