Acushnet Company is a recognised global leader in the golf industry. It offers high-quality and high-performance golf products, which are categorised and traded under brands such as Titleist (golf equipment), Footjoy (golf wear) and Scotty Cameron (putters), among others.
In early 2021, a trademark application was brought to Acushnet's attention. A Chinese company had applied for the trademark FUTLEWT in respect of golf clubs, club heads, golf bags, golf gloves and putting mats (golfing equipment), among others, in class 28. The trademark application had been filed on 29 July 2020 and published on 13 December 2020.
At first sight, the applied-for mark, FUTLEWT (Figure 1), seemed like an honest application as it appeared to be a coined word with no conspicuous association with Acushnet. Nevertheless, under scrutiny, it was clear that the representation of the trademark had been deliberately arranged to make it visually almost identical to Acushnet's TITLEIST mark (Figure 2), despite the remarkably different letter components. This could explain why the alarming similarities between the FUTLEWT mark and Acushnet's TITLEIST mark had been overlooked during the preliminary examination.
Figure 1: FUTLEWT mark
Figure 2: TITLEIST mark
On 14 March 2021, Acushnet filed an opposition against the FUTLEWT trademark, citing its prior TITLEIST trademarks registered in respect of "golfing equipment, golf clubs and so forth" in class 28.
On 23 December 2021, the China National Intellectual Property Administration (CNIPA) upheld the opposition application. The CNIPA sided with Acushnet, finding that the FUTLEWT mark was confusingly similar to Acushnet's prior registered marks, and its coexistence with the cited marks in terms of similar goods was likely to cause confusion among the relevant public. Also, the opposed mark was an imitation of Acushnet's well-known trademark, thus it was likely to mislead the relevant public and harm Acushnet's interests should it be allowed to proceed to registration and be used in practice.
The trick employed by the trademark squatter in this case is an old one. In order to pull it off, trademark squatters design a graphic word mark, featuring seemingly harmless text that is cleverly arranged to visually mimic a third party's prior trademark. The key to the scheme is to deceive the examination system so that the application can slip through.
This phenomenon has been on the CNIPA's radar for quite a while, such that the agency even explicitly states in article 5.1.5, Chapter 5, Part 2 of the newly promulgated Guidelines for Trademark Examination and Adjudication that:
in case the contested trademark and the cited trademark are different in terms of word component and pronunciation, yet their visual similarity is likely to create confusion among the relevant public as to the origin of the goods or services to which these marks are attached, the contested trademark should be deemed as similar to the cited mark.
The Guidelines provide various examples, such as CLUNLZILL and DUNHILL (Figure 3), and 13055 and BOSS (Figure 4).
Figure 3: CLUNLZILL and DUNHILL marks
Figure 4: 13055 and BOSS marks
It is very welcome that the new Guidelines expressly ban this practice. Unfortunately, notwithstanding the explicit prohibition, the chances are high that trademark squatters could still game the system.
Ideally, a graphic word mark is to be subject to a double clearance check during the preliminary examination process. The word component would go undetected, as the word in itself is handpicked so that it will not be flagged up in the routine clearance check. At this stage, if the mark is merely deemed to be a stylised word mark and no prior trademark appears to be standing in its way, it will sail through the examination and be published in the trademark gazette.
If the mark is deemed to be a device or combination mark, however, it will be subject to a second clearance check, when the mark will be translated to graphic code based on the Vienna Agreement Establishing an International Classification of the Figurative Elements of Marks. This code would then be searched in the CNIPA's graphic database. For the FUTLEWT trademark to have been flagged up in this process, Acushnet's TITLEIST trademark would have had to have been previously input as a device trademark in the database, or else the second clearance check would be moot.
With the rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) and a surge in the number of trademark applications in China, brand owners are increasingly relying on AI to identify copycat filings through trademark monitoring programmes. Without manual screening, well-camouflaged copycat applications can easily trick AI systems, survive machine-based monitoring and mature to registration. Fighting registered copycat trademarks in China is an onerous task, since brand owners need to have the registration invalidated before asserting their trademark rights, unless they can accomplish the other daunting task of proving that their cited mark has become well known prior to the application date of the copycat trademark.
Brand owners need designated in-house staff and/or outside counsel to manage their trademark monitoring programmes. On top of AI-driven trademark monitoring programmes, brand owners should count on local counsel with intimate knowledge of their trademark portfolio to manually sift through fishy trademark filings. This could fill the gap left by machine-based monitoring programmes and help nip copycat trademarks in the bud.
For further information on this topic please contact Yang Mingming or Nan Jiang at Wanhuida Intellectual Property by telephone (+86 10 6892 1000) or email ([email protected] or [email protected]). The Wanhuida Intellectual Property website can be accessed at www.wanhuida.com.
This article was first published by WTR.