On October 9, 2012, six retailers, BEST BUY, COSTCO, GAP, OLD NAVY, GUESS? and WAL-MART, filed a motion in the Superior Court of Québec seeking a declaratory judgement against the Office québécoise de la langue française (OQLF) that the use of their  trademarks on signage, without a French descriptor, is compliant with the Charter of the French Language (the Charter) and its regulations.

This is the result of a campaign launched by the OQLF in 2011 that aims to require more public use of French on commercial signage. While the Charter generally requires French as the language of commerce in Québec, since 1993 the Charter’s regulations provided an exception for recognized trademarks. Businesses have relied upon this exception to display their trademarks without any additional descriptive wording.  However, in a move that has surprised and threatens to inconvenience many businesses, the OQLF has recently made a distinction between trademarks and firm names, finding public signs to be display of a firm name, vs. trademark and, relying upon Section 27 of the Charter’s Regulation respecting the language of commerce and business (Regulation), now requires such names to be accompanied by a French term that describes the nature of the business. The campaign targets all businesses, not just retailers, but these retailers have decided to seek the Court’s interpretation of the Charter and its regulations, which could put an end to the debate, unless further appeals are sought.

According to the motion, the OQLF has apparently threatened to suspend Guess? and Wal-Mart’s francization certificates. These certificates are issued by the OQLF if it considers the use of French to be generalized at all levels of the business. It is yet to be seen if other retailers or organizations will intervene in this case. The motion will certainly be followed by trademark practitioners and all businesses affected by the OQLF’s new interpretation on signage requirements in Québec.