No exclusive rights for trademarks with generic terms

Authors: Erikas Saukalas, associated partner at METIDA, attorney-at-law, head of International Relations Division, court mediator; Ignas Motiejunas, junior lawyer at METIDA

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When companies create and register new trademarks, they tend to include generic terms.  This is understandable, as these words can convey the real nature of services or goods.  However, Vilnius County Court showed that no business entity can have exclusive rights to a generic term.

Generic terms in trademarks cannot be considered as property 

Kalba.lt had a dispute with Uzsienio kalbu mokymo centras, a state enterprise, over the common noun kalba “language”. To be more specific, Kalba.lt sought to declare their competitor’s trademark Kalbis bendravimui studijos darbui as invalid due to its confusing similarity with their trademark kalba.lt. They also attempted to prohibit the use of the domain www.kalbis.lt

Companies tend to maintain their position in the market by using generic terms in their trademarks. However, this often leads to court disputes. Despite the fact that you can include common Lithuanian words into your trademark, it is not recommended to treat them as your own property.

In this situation, the court was in favour of Uzsienio kalbu mokymo centras claiming that the word element of the registered trademark kalba.lt describes company’s services and is a common noun in Lithuanian. Business entities cannot obtain exclusive rights to this type of words and in this way restrict competitors’ rights, therefore the court ruled that these elements in the trademark cannot be protected by law.

Distinctive trademarks matter most

Court’s decision was based on the Law on Trade Mark and prevents the market from unfair competition. It seems that registration cannot always protect your trademark and court can allow others to use your trademark’s elements if, for example, these elements are common words. The plaintiff in this case justified their claim only by arguing that the word elements in the disputed trademarks were similar. Since these word elements are not protected by law, the court ruled that the trademarks were different and hence, cannot cause the likelihood of confusion.

This case only shows that distinctive trademarks are much more superior players in the market. Although generic terms can be useful in the first steps of your business, later you might struggle to make them stand out, especially if there are others using trademarks with similar words. And do not forget, distinction is the main feature of the trademark.

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