Parallel importation is a complex and often disputed issue in the IP field. ‘Parallel imports’ are genuine goods that are legitimately acquired from the rights holder and subsequently sold at lower prices through unauthorised trade channels in the same or a different market.
As parallel importation is essentially a trade practice, it is regulated under both IP law and competition law. In the trademark law context, parallel importation significantly affects the rights of a manufacturer or trader, as trademarks help traders to earn goodwill in the market and to protect their commercial reputation. As territorial rights, trademarks also indicate the source of the trademarked products or services. A conflict therefore arises when parallel importation results in a misrepresentation of the source, reputation or quality of the trademarked goods.
There is no dispute that parallel importers are in business to make money. Parallel importation occurs due to price differentials caused by currency rate fluctuations and tax differentials in different markets. This allows goods to be resold at a profit by a third party in a more expensive market. Actions to prevent parallel imports under trademark law include suits for passing off and/or infringement.
Parallel imports are also referred to as ‘grey-market’ goods because although the goods may be genuine, they are sold through unauthorised trade channels. The Indian judiciary has recently attempted to clarify this ‘grey’ area.
Law on parallel imports
In India, parallel importation is intricately linked to the principle of exhaustion of rights under the Trademarks Act, 1999. The principle of exhaustion of rights is enshrined in Article 6 of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPs), which states that “nothing in this Agreement shall be used to address the issue of the exhaustion of intellectual property rights”. Hence, each state is entitled either to prohibit or to allow parallel imports within its own legal framework.
Two major issues that are often discussed in the context of parallel importation and trademarks in India are whether parallel importation constitutes infringement under Section 29 of the Trademarks Act and whether India recognises the principle of international exhaustion of rights under Section 30 of the Trademarks Act.
One of the first cases concerning parallel importation and trademark law in India was Cisco Technologies v Shrikanth 2006 (31) PTC 538, in which the Delhi High Court granted an ex parte injunction in favour of the plaintiff and restrained the defendant from importing computer hardware and hardware components under the trademark CISCO (which was registered in India). The plaintiff argued that:
CISCO products such as routers and switches are mission and human critical hardware components used in network infrastructure; that the product of the Plaintiff is used in critical networks such as railways, air-traffic control, hospitals, air defenses etc.; that malfunctioning/failure of the product of the Plaintiff would result in huge losses due to failure of these networks; that keeping in view the critical importance of the product in question, it becomes imperative to ensure that neither counterfeit sales nor sales by misrepresentation take place… and that public interest has to be kept in mind while determining the issue whether ex-pare ad interim relief should flow to the Plaintiff at this stage.
In accepting the plaintiff’s arguments, the court also observed that:
It is the obligation of all statutory and governmental authorities to ensure that laws are not violated by any person in this country. For persons who hold benefit of registered trademarks, Section 140 of the Trade Mark Act, 1999 makes statutory provisions whereunder the Collector of Customs could prohibit the importation of goods if the import thereof would infringe Section 29(vi)(c) of the Trade Marks Act. I see no reason why the statutory authorities should not prohibit import of such products, import whereof would result or abet in the violation of the proprietary interest of a person in a trademark/trade name.
The court also issued directions to Customs to notify at all ports that no consignments, other than those of the plaintiff, should be permitted to be imported in respect of routers, switches or cards bearing the CISCO trademark and/or the bridge device.
The Indian courts will usually grant an injunction against parallel importers only if the nature or quality of the goods has been changed or impaired after they have been put on the market. For instance, in Samsung Electronics Co Ltd v Mr G Choudhary, 2006 (33) PTC 425, Samsung argued that the sale of parallel-imported ink cartridges and toners did not strictly conform to Indian laws and regulations (eg, they were not accompanied by literature in English or the vernacular, and/or a label indicating the maximum retail price; they were not covered by a warranty; and use of the products would likely breach the warranty of the printer in which they were used). The Delhi High Court restrained the defendant from dealing directly or indirectly in those products.
In M/S General Electric Company v Altamas Khan General Electric argued, among other things, that the defendants’ import of its genuine products into a territory for which they were not intended violated its trademark and caused it loss. It further argued that the illegal sale caused it loss of reputation, insofar as purchasers that were unable to claim warranty or avail of an aftercare service would likely blame it or hold it responsible. The Delhi High Court found the defendants liable for infringement.
In Kapil Wadhva v Samsung Electronics, 2013 (53) PTC112, the Delhi High Court Division Bench reinforced the legality of parallel imports and held that the Trademarks Act enshrines the principle of international exhaustion of rights. In other words, it held that the exclusive right of a trademark owner over its goods is exhausted once the goods have been put on the market either by the trademark owner or with its consent. The court held, among other things, that the word ‘market’ used in the statute implies a global market, and that the preparatory works to the Trademark Bill 1999 clearly indicate the intent of the legislature to recognise the principle of international exhaustion of rights to control further sales of the goods once they have been put on the market by the trademark owner.
To illustrate: where a third party acquires goods legitimately from the trademark owner in country X, which follows the principle of international exhaustion of rights, and subsequently sells them at a higher or lower price in country Y, which also has an international regime, the trademark owner cannot oppose the sale because its exclusive right has already been exhausted by the doctrine of exhaustion in country X. An international exhaustion regime is therefore consistent with TRIPs in promoting free trade.
Section 30(4) of the Trademarks Act allows the trademark owner to control the circulation of goods where there are legitimate reasons to object to further dealings in the goods – in particular, where their condition is changed or impaired after they have been put on the market. The Delhi High Court Division Bench has broadly interpreted ‘legitimate reasons’ to include differences in:
- services and warranties;
- advertising and promotional efforts;
- quality control, pricing and presentation; and
- the language of the product literature.
Although an appeal is pending before the Supreme Court of India, the decision remains in force.
A notable aspect of this ruling is that the court directed that, as far as possible, unauthorised dealers and parallel importers must prominently display in their showrooms signs stating that the products they sell have been imported, and that they themselves – rather than the trademark owners – are providing the related warranty and aftercare services. The appellant in this case was ordered to display the following sign outside its showroom: “Samsung/SAMSUNG Products sold are imported into India and SAMSUNG (KOREA) does not warranty the quality of the goods nor provide any after sales service for the goods. We warranty the quality of the goods and shall provide after sales service for the goods.”
Such practices can mitigate the risk of confusion and deception among consumers and help consumers to identify the source of the products and distinguish between parallel imports and authorised products.
In India, the only circumstances in which a trademark owner can oppose or prohibit unauthorised parallel imports and plead infringement under the Trademarks Act are where the goods either were not lawfully acquired or were changed or materially altered after their acquisition. Therefore, given the international exhaustion of rights regime, a parallel importer need not prove that the trademark owner has consented to the parallel imports, either expressly or implicitly. Perhaps the only burden on the parallel importer relates to the quality and safety compliance of the products. In Philip Morris Products SA v Sameer, 209 (2014) DLT 1, the Delhi High Court held that in light of the legal position enunciated by the Division Bench in Samsung, an importer of grey-market goods, its representative or a subsequent purchaser will not be liable for infringement under Section 29 if the imports fall within the purview of Section 30(3). However, the importer must prove that the impugned goods were placed on a market worldwide by the trademark owner or with its consent, and thereafter that it lawfully acquired them.
Indian customs law also includes provisions on parallel importation. According to the 2012 Central Board of Excise & Customs Circular on Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights on Imported Goods, parallel importation is not prohibited unless:
- the goods bear a false trademark as specified in Section 102 of the Trademarks Act; or
- the goods bear a false trade description within the meaning of Section 2(1)(i), in relation to any of the matters connected to the description, statement or other indications of the product, excluding those specified in Sections 2(1)(ii) and (iii).
This marked a clear departure from the Intellectual Property Rights (Imported Goods) Enforcement Rules 2007, which provided that where a trademark owner notified the customs authorities in the prescribed format requesting that clearance of goods suspected of infringing its rights be suspended, and this notice was duly registered by the customs authorities, the import of all goods bearing the infringing trademark would be suspended and proceedings for confiscation of the goods would be initiated under Section 111(d) of the Customs Act. The confiscated goods were eventually required to be destroyed or disposed of outside normal channels of commerce with the trademark owner’s consent.
Consequences of parallel importation
Parallel importation has both legal and economic ramifications. Economically, it promotes the availability of trademarked goods at different prices, which prevents the establishment of a trade monopoly. A monopolistic approach in a parallel import-free market would lead to inflated prices of the goods sold by the trademark owner or authorised dealer. In the absence of cheaper alternatives, consumers would be obliged to purchase goods at the price set by the monopolist. This could have an adverse effect on the overall market, as well as on supply and demand.
Legally, it is essential to prevent deception and confusion among consumers regarding the source or quality of products, and to protect the economic interests of trademark owners. Only if the parallel imported products are materially different from those sold directly can a trademark owner file suit, including for passing off, falsification and infringement.
Therefore, the positive impact of parallel importation is that it forces prices down and provides consumers with goods at lower prices. Parallel imports prevent trademark owners from exercising their exclusive right to divide markets and thus promote free trade, subject to the exhaustion doctrine followed in the particular country. The negative impact is that the manufacturer’s distribution arrangements and ability to monitor the quality of trademarked goods are restricted. Parallel imports are also often used as a tool to cash in on the reputation and goodwill of the trademark owner; this can give rise to an action for passing off.
While consumers may benefit from lower prices for trademarked goods, parallel imports do not necessarily guarantee quality assurance or an aftercare service, and may thus result in consumer dissatisfaction and cause damage to the reputation and goodwill of the trademark. On a more practical note, however, the consumer as end user has the ultimate choice and is the ultimate beneficiary of parallel trade. Most consumers would purchase an Apple or Sony product from authorised dealers only and would be aware of the repercussions if they did otherwise. Similarly, in the case of pharmaceuticals, consumers would generally exercise extra caution and purchase the same from trusted distributors, chemists or hospitals.
Under Indian trademark law, trademark owners can take legal action only against traders dealing in goods that compromise the goodwill, reputation or quality of the trademark. Parallel importation thus acts as a reasonable limitation to the trademark owner’s exclusive rights to use the mark in relation to the goods and services for which it has been registered.
The decision on whether to allow parallel importation is ultimately a choice between quality control and price control; between the economic rights of trademark owners and consumer access; between trade monopolies and free trade. In the trademark context, parallel importation in no way compromises the trademark owner’s right to sue for infringement, passing off or falsification of its marks. In this sense, by following the principle of international exhaustion of rights, Indian law not only safeguards the reputational assets of a trademark, but also ensures free trade, as mandated by TRIPs, by eliminating the monopolistic tendencies of profit-driven trademark owners.
This article first appeared in IAM magazine. For further information please visit www.iam-magazine.com.