On 30 November 2017, the District Court of The Hague ruled that the Dutch company, Royal Dutch Holding, had to remove the word ‘Royal’ from its trade name. Royal Dutch Holding was not permitted by the Dutch King to use the word ‘Royal’ and its trade name was therefore found to be misleading in the sense of the Dutch Trade Name Act.
This case was initiated by The Sigillis Regiis Praesidio Foundation, a foundation responsible for guarding the intellectual property rights and other property rights of the Dutch Royal Family. The Foundation claimed that the company Royal Dutch Holding used a misleading trade name by using the English translation (‘Royal’) of the protected Dutch word ‘Koninklijke’.
The King of The Netherlands may grant the right to companies to use the word ‘Koninklijke’. To be eligible, a company must:
- be of major importance in its respective field of business;
- exist for at least 100 years;
- have at least100 employees;
- have a good financial reputation and be demonstrably stable;
- have an impeccable management with management board members and supervisory board members of irreproachable conduct;
- manifest itself as a Dutch company.
Royal Dutch Holding was however not granted this right. In its defence, Royal Dutch Holding argued that the protection of the word ‘Koninklijke’ does not extend to the English translation ‘Royal’. The court ruled however that because the use of the English language in Dutch society has become common practice, the public will make virtually no distinction between ‘Koninklijke Nederlandse’ and ‘Royal Dutch’. Furthermore, big Dutch companies such as Shell and KLM, companies that are entitled to bear the word ‘Koninklijke’, present themselves in The Netherlands using the English translation of the predicate: ‘Royal Dutch’. Therefore, the court ruled that the use of ‘Royal’ was misleading pursuant to the Dutch Trade Name Act and ordered Royal Dutch Holding to remove ‘Royal’ from its trade name.
Royal Dutch Holding is particularly active in North Africa and the Gulf States. The Foundation argued that Royal Dutch Holding presented itself (especially abroad) as a company with a royal connection. However, the court ruled that it only has jurisdiction to order the change of a trade name of a Dutch or foreign company within The Netherlands. The court considered itself not to be competent to grant a cross-border injunction for changing a trade name abroad.
More than 4.000 companies in The Netherlands use the word ‘Royal’ in their trade name, for example the Royal Bank of Scotland N.V, Royal Suits and Royal Baby. Can the Foundation oblige these companies now as well to change their names if they did not receive the permission of the King of The Netherlands? The court emphasised that the term ‘Royal’ may not create the impression that the King of The Netherlands has granted permission to use the term. A trade name with ‘Royal’ but without the word “Dutch” could remove the impression that the King of The Netherlands has granted permission. Foreign companies that operate in The Netherlands and use the word ‘Royal’ in their trade name, but have received a licence from a foreign royal house seem to fall outside the scope of this decision.
In short, a trade name containing the words ‘Royal Dutch’ is likely to be misleading and a company with such a trade name may be forced to change it in The Netherlands. However, Dutch courts have no jurisdiction over the use by a company of the term ‘Royal Dutch’ abroad.