Thursday, February 21, 2008

Brand Wars in India [Update]

A sight, soccer star David Beckham, retailers Wal-Mart and GAP, food giant Kraft Food, automaker DaimlerChrysler, French bank BNP Paribas, media biggies Disney and Time Inc may not have much in common. Except that they are at loggerheads with small Indian entrepreneurs.

The dispute, curiously, is not playing out in their respective business areas, but in the country’s trademark office. These international business icons are opposing Indian entrepreneurs’ applications for trademark as they fear infringement of their intellectual property rights.

England soccer star David Beckham is miffed at one Jaiprakash Chamaria, who runs readymade garments firm Aayush Creations. Mr Chamaria has filed an application in Indian trademark office for the allotment of Beckon Shirts. As the proposed trademark sounds similar to Beckham, the soccer star is worried that the Mumbai-based firm might take undue advantage of his goodwill among consumers.

And to prevent that, Beckham has filed opposition to Mr Chamaria’s plea in India’s trademark office. Wal-Mart, meanwhile, is involved in at least two such cases: Puducherry-based apparel maker Walmart Textile’s Karkouzhali Panchtcharam’s request for ‘Wallmant’ and Delhi-based Malhotra Retail’s Ashok K Malhotra’s plea for ‘Mal-Mart’ have caught the world’s biggest retailer’s attention.

Similarly, the owner of Lee jeans, The HD Lee Company, is contesting New Delhi-based BNK Intrade’s application for the award of ‘Lee Mei’ trademark. BNK deals in synthetic leather. Another Mumbai-based readymade garment maker Mexico Clothing Company’s Dinesh Agarwal’s request for ‘GAB’ has made American retailer GAP uneasy.

Any combination of letters or numerals, images or colours can be claimed as trademark by an individual or a company to distinguish its goods and services from other similar goods. So, a trademark that comes close to any other established mark in appearance or pronunciation may be challenged. And most companies today are pretty vigilant in this arena.

“MNCs have a strong intellectual property department, which scrutinises journals from trademark and patent offices across the globe. Some of them have tie-ups with law firms who are assigned the responsibility. Even if there is a slight possibility of infringement, these companies spring into action,” says trademark lawyer Siddharth Bambha.

The Indian trademark office invites opposition to an application after its publication in the office journal. An application is published only after it has satisfied the examiners on the basic trademark requirements. The opposition can be filed within three months after the publication.
Every opposition is followed by many rounds of arguments from both sides, culminating in a final decision by the trademark office. The process is usually tedious and may take years. There is also a provision of filing opposition even after the trademark has been granted to a party. In the event of an opponent not being satisfied with the trademark office’s decision, he can move the Intellectual Property Appellate Board and subsequently the High Court. And if the opponent wins the case, it can claim cost of proceedings from the applicant.

In a recent case, the Madras High Court had ruled in favour of French retailer Carrefour, which had moved the court alleging illegal use of its trademark by a Chennai-based firm.

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