Registration of the (whole) mark does not confer an exclusive right over a part of a registered mark. Similarly, no exclusivity can be claimed over a descriptive mark or a descriptive part of the mark, not even by misspelling it. This was the ruling of the Delhi High Court in a recent Trademark Infringement & Passing Off matter between PhonePe Pvt. Ltd. (Plaintiff) & Ezy Services & Anr. (Defendants). Hon’ble Justice C. Hari Shankar affirmed some of the fundamental principles of the Trademark Law, which have been asserted by various Courts from time to time.
PhonePe in its plea before the Delhi High Court stated that: a consumer of average intelligence and imperfect recollection, on seeing the defendants’ mark BharatPe would immediately associate it with PhonePe.
Well, how often is our intelligence questioned and challenged, even without our knowledge? Considering the deep inroads that technology has made into our lives now, I reckon all of us are reasonably aware of the prominent digital wallets in the market. Knowing that, it is contestable how many of us would have wondered about any association between these two marks purely based on the similarity in their suffix “Pe”.
The plaintiff had filed a suit before the Delhi High Court seeking a permanent injunction and other remedies against the defendants’ use of ‘Pe’ or any deceptive mark identical and/or similar to the plaintiff’s trademark ‘PhonePe’. The plaintiff alleged that the use of the word “BharatPe” itself, infringed the plaintiff’s registered trademark and amounted to passing off.
The plaintiff in its suit claimed that “Pe” is an essential, dominant, and distinguishing feature of the plaintiff’s registered trademarks. Plaintiff further claimed that “Pe” is an invented word, not to be found in the English dictionary and when combined with “Phone”, which is an ordinary dictionary word with a well-known meaning, “Pe” becomes the dominant and essential feature of the plaintiff’s trademark “PhonePe”.
Court’s Findings and Rulings:
The Hon’ble Delhi High Court’s decision in this matter seems to be premised based on following three principles, which have already been established earlier in multiple Judgments by various Courts:
a) The Anti-Dissection Rule:
The Hon’ble High Court observed that the registered mark ought not to be dissected for the purpose of comparison with the conflicting mark. However, the Court acknowledged the exception of “dominant mark” test, under which, if any part of the plaintiff’s mark was found to be dominant, the Court was required to examine whether such dominant part of the plaintiff’s mark was infringed by the defendant’s mark.
The plaintiff contended that “PhonePe” was a combination of the words “Phone” and “Pe”, where “Phone” was a common dictionary word and the suffix “Pe” was not a dictionary word, which made it the dominant feature of the plaintiff’s trademark. Similarly, in the defendant’s trademark, the word “Bharat” was publici juris and “Pe” formed the dominant element of the mark “BharatPe”. However, the Court was not convinced on the argument and did not find “Pe” to be the dominant part, therefore, the marks were not allowed to be dissected for the comparison.
The Court ruled that while applying the above principles to the facts in hand, the following positions emerged i.e. (i) “PhonePe” and “BharatPe” were both composite marks. (ii) the marks could not be dissected into “Phone” and “Pe” in the case of the plaintiff and “Bharat” and “Pe” in the case of the defendants; and (iii) the plaintiff could not claim exclusivity over the word “Pe”, as it was merely a misspelling of the word “Pay”, hence no infringement could be claimed on the basis of part of a registered trademark.
b) Separate Registration of a Part of a Composite Mark:
The Hon’ble Court further observed that since the plaintiff did not have any registration over the suffix “Pe”, therefore, it could not claim any exclusivity on the same. As a result, the question of infringement did not arise because of the alleged similarity between the non-essential, unregistered part of the composite mark.
In the cases of South India Beverages and P.K. Overseas Pvt. Ltd., the Delhi High Court explained the relation between the anti-dissection principle and the “dominant/essential feature” principle. The division bench relied on a passage from McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition, earlier cited in the case of Stiefel Laboratories, which stated that “The rationale for the rule is that the commercial impression of a composite trademark on an ordinary prospective buyer is created by the mark as a whole, not by its component parts. However, it is not a violation of the anti-dissection rule to view the component parts of conflicting composite marks as a preliminary step on the way to an ultimate determination of probable customer reaction to the conflicting composites as a whole”.
c) Non-exclusivity of Descriptive or Generic Marks or Parts of Marks:
The Hon’ble Court observed that a party cannot claim exclusivity over a descriptive or generic mark or a part of the mark that is considered descriptive. The Court went on to observe that the plaintiff could not claim that the mark was non-descriptive merely by misspelling the descriptive word. However, the Court admitted an exception to this principle in situations where the descriptive or generic mark had acquired distinctiveness or secondary meaning.
The Court further observed that had the plaintiff been able to establish that the word “Pe” had acquired distinctiveness and secondary meaning, it might have been able to make out a case of infringement. However, in this case, the plaintiff’s use of the mark “PhonePe” was only since 2016 and even the defendants claimed to have extensive use of their mark “BharatPe”. Therefore, the plaintiff had not been able to make out a prima facie case.
In the case of Marico Limited, the Court dived deep into the concept of acquired secondary meaning of a descriptive mark and held that while deciding whether a descriptive mark is registrable or not the “Courts should ordinarily lean against holding distinctiveness of a descriptive trademark unless the user of such trademark is over such a long period of time of many-many years that even a descriptive word mark is unmistakably and only relatable to one source i.e. the same has acquired a secondary meaning”.
The Marico case also discussed the nature and character of a misspelt word when used as a trademark and held that “if partly tweaked descriptive words and expressions of English language are claimed to be coined words, the same would result in a grave and absurd situation because a non-tweaked word being a completely descriptive word will in fact be deceptively similar to the tweaked descriptive English language word or expression of which registration is obtained”.
The Hon’ble Court ruled that there was no case for grant of interim injunction against the defendants. The Court observed that except the common word “Pe” (suffix) it cannot be established that the marks “PhonePe” and “BharatPe” are confusingly or deceptively similar. Barring the suffix “Pe” these are two different words altogether with no commonality whatsoever.
The important legal positions that emerge from this decision are:
(i) In accordance with the “anti-dissection” rule, it was held that the composite marks were to be considered in their entirety rather than truncating or dissecting them into individual components/elements.
(ii) The registration of a composite mark cannot confer any exclusive rights over any part of such registered mark unless otherwise, such part is the dominant part of the registered mark.
(iii) No exclusivity can be claimed, over a descriptive mark, or a descriptive part of a mark, not even by misspelling it, unless otherwise the descriptive mark or descriptive part has attained distinctiveness, or it has acquired a secondary meaning.
This case has surely reaffirmed some of the basic principles of trademark laws that prohibit adaptation and exclusive claim over descriptive and generic marks or part of the mark.