Perils of using generic/descriptive terms as a “Trademark”

On February 21, 2021, when Ramesh Vel, the founder of a Coimbatore based startup “Daily Basket” tweeted about BigBasket’s alleged bullying through a cease & desist notice, no one ever thought that it would become such a big issue. Even before the news could spread, Daily Basket was prompt enough to create a page https://bbisabully.com/ to put forth their perspective and even posted a copy of the notice. They did not stop at this but went on to launch an online campaign #BoycottBigBasket.

This prompt and aggressive move surely garnered sympathies as well as support for Daily Basket and BigBasket was at the receiving end as it was perceived as a bully in the entire episode. Though it may not have caused any impact on BigBasket’s revenue, the Company cannot deny that the episode did put a dent in its brand reputation.

The Notice:

The cease & desist notice dated Feb 17, 2021, was sent to the startup Letsdaily India Private Limited, asking them to refrain from using the mark “Daily Basket” and any other name or a mark containing the term “Basket” and also sought Rupees Two Lakhs towards the cost of the legal notice. 

Who owns/claims what?

Before analyzing the matter, let us understand the claims and ownerships over the subject marks.

Looking at the trademark database, BigBasket seems to have registered several variants of its brand “BigBasket” in various classes i.e. 29, 30, 31 & 35 (food & related goods and online marketplace).  However, the record does not show or mention any use or registration of the term “Basket” by BigBasket independently.

Daily Basket claims to have started its business around August 2020 but there is no record of any trademark application/registration by them.

The term “Basket”:

Currently, there are two “Basket” marks that seem to have been registered in India; one being in Class 35 where the application is dated 2014 (appl. no.  2779571) and the other one in Class 31 where the application is dated 2017 (Appl. no. 3470365).

The mark “Daily Basket”:

With regard to the mark “Daily Basket”, currently there are 3 marks in the records of Trademark Registry in Class 35. The first “Daily Basket” mark (appl no. 1807585), which was filed way back in 2009, could not proceed to registration and the same stands abandoned.

The other “Daily Basket” mark (appl. no. 3042971), which stands “registered”, was filed in the year 2015. The third “Daily Basket” mark, which was filed in the year 2017, (app. no. 3491637) was refused registration due to various reasons including the presence of conflicting marks in the same class.  

Interestingly, during the prosecution of the last two marks, the examiner did not cite “BigBasket” as a conflicting mark even though BigBasket’s trademarks were on record or registered during that period and in the same class - related to the same or similar services.

Other similar marks with prefix/suffix “Basket”:

There are over a dozen trademarks with suffix/prefix “basket” including, Oven Basket, Nature’s Basket, Ocean Basket, Fresh Basket, Health Basket etc. which appear to be in existence (registered or filed or used) on the Trademark Registry’s record as early as 1999 which is way prior to BigBasket’s coming into existence i.e., 2012.  

Similarly, there are another over a dozen marks with prefix/suffix “basket” including Fbasket, EBasket, 4Basket, NutBasket, Medbasket, TekBasket, MilkBasket, Badi Basket, Aqua Basket, Pure Basket, Spin Basket, Eco Basket etc. which were registered post BigBasket’s trademark registration and most of them are in use and in relation to the goods/ services in Class 29, 30, 31 and 35.

BigBasket’s Claim – fair or unfair?

As per the cease & desist notice, BigBasket’s primary objection was over Daily Basket’s use of the term “Basket”. A simple comparison between the two marks (as shown in https://bbisabully.com/)makes it clear that there exists no similarity between the two logos. Therefore, the main issue in the subject matter was over the term “Basket”.

Without dwelling deep into the Trademark Law, which has already been done in many of the previously authored articles, it is abundantly clear that a term like “Basket” (in class 35) would be considered a descriptive mark hence non-registrable (we need not get into the nitty-gritty of how the other two “Basket” marks were registered).

Further, even though BigBasket has been threatening and opposing registration of various other marks with Prefix/Suffix “Basket”, the fact that it did not even attempt to register the mark “Basket” itself makes the strength of the contention fairly obvious.

What goes against BigBasket?

A plain reading of the cease & desist notice explains the seriousness of the matter. It is beyond anyone’s understanding how and on what ground one would claim exclusive ownership over the term “Basket” especially when a) you don’t have any registration over it; b) there are several already registered marks (similar) some of them being prior to even their commencement of business, and c) the mark being a descriptive one.

Perhaps, no one can deny the fact that BigBasket’s claims were far-fetched and demands overly ambitious. It is quite possible that they would not have been apprised with the basic principles of trademark law or rather the whole approach was very casual in nature.

It happens in many cases where the trademarks applications are opposed and users are threatened with legal notices even when there is no strong case. This is because, in India, it is not a common practice to fight back or take legal action for groundless threats.

What are the lessons learnt?

Getting involved in personal capacity must be avoided when a matter can be and should be handled by experts who know the ins and outs of the legal implications.  In the instant case, the founder of Daily Basket got involved personally and used digital and social media to level allegations. The fact that BigBasket chose to respond in a clarification mode also did not go down well and the whole matter got murkier.  

Had this been handled by their lawyers instead (considering the substance in the notice), it would have simply been concluded without any clamour and commotion. Involvement of founders or CEOs is advisable and welcome only in closed-door negotiations or dispute resolutions but definitely not in public forums.     

Is it wise to adopt a generic mark?

Adoption and registration of generic and descriptive marks always have consequences, both in the short term as well as the long term. In the short term, it is an uphill task to get these marks registered, whereas in the long term one must keep contesting the use/registration of similar marks by third parties.

There is always a fraction of people who would advise you to adopt a generic/descriptive mark which makes the marketing team’s job much easier, but everyone does not get lucky and neither does everyone has deep pockets. The “Bookings.com” case is a good example where the matter went till US Supreme Court before the mark was registered and even then, they did not get the right to refrain others from using similar marks.

Similarly, in the recent Judgment of PhonePe Vs. BharatPe, the Hon’ble Delhi High Court asserted that no exclusivity can be claimed over a descriptive mark, or a descriptive part of the mark unless the descriptive mark or descriptive part has attained distinctiveness, i.e. it has acquired a secondary meaning.