Row over French descriptions on trademarks reignited in Quebec 14 Apr 16
In 2015, international brands successfully challenged plans to compel the positioning of French descriptions alongside trademarks when used in Quebec. This week, it emerged that the government intends to ask stores to use French signage on their facades. While the move does not go as far as previous plans, it has sparked intense political debate – with opposition figures calling for the government to revisit and strengthen plans to compel companies to adopt French descriptions.
Back in 2011 we reported that Quebec’s Office of the French Language (OQLF) had launched a campaign, aimed at multinational chains and big box stores, to ensure the visibility of French language descriptions on commercial signs. The rules stated that stores with non-French commercial signs must additionally display generic terms describing the store’s product or service offering in French. Additionally, it stated that brands with trademarks in both French and another language must use either the French trademark alone, or use both marks with the French language mark given more prominence.
The following year a number of brand owners – including Wal-Mart, Guess?, Old Navy, BestBuy, Gap and Costco – jointly filed a motion for declaratory judgment asking the Quebec Superior Court to clarify whether requests from the OQLF that they must add French generic terms to signs featuring their brand names are legal pursuant to the province’s Charter of the French Language. INTA also filed an amicus brief in the case, asking the Québec Superior Court to reject the OQLF’s interpretation of the province’s charter and the relevant regulations that would require that French generic language be added to trademarks displayed on public signs and posters in Québec.
In April 2014, the court sided with INTA and confirmed that businesses can continue to use registered trademarks on public signs outside their premises in the Province of Québec without the need to add French generic language.
The Quebec government subsequently appealed the decision, but this was dismissed on April 27 2015. As Bereskin & Parr’s Brigitte Chan and François Larose wrote on World Trademark Review at the time “the Court of Appeal analysed the relevant sections of the charter and its regulations, and concluded that non-French trademarks on public signage can be used without a French description of the nature of the business, in accordance with the trademark exception under the charter, unless a French version of the mark is registered, in which case, the French mark must be used”.
The government chose not to appeal to the Supreme Court, with the decision standing as a clear victory for the brands. However, over the past few days discussion over the use of French language signage has been revived, with Quebec solidaire co-leader Françoise David arguing the province doesn’t have a choice but to strengthen plans to compel companies to adopt French descriptions.
La Presse reports that Premier Philippe Couillard has intimated that an announcement on the charter is imminent, with plans to ask supermarkets to use French signage on their store facades. It reports, though, that due to the previous legal decision, the government has cooled on the notion of forcing companies to add a French descriptive term to their trademark.
In response, David hit out at the government’s climb-down, stating that it should reopen and strengthen the previous bill, and also urged customers to shop in outlets that have already voluntarily added a French description. She is quoted in The Montreal Gazette as saying: “They are more respectful to their customers; I encourage people to go there instead of going into a business that doesn’t respect the francophone character of Quebec.” Coalition Avenir Québec Leader François Legault also told the news outlet that he is in favour of requiring descriptions in French.
At present, the issue remains a political hot potato and the government may well stick to its guns with respect to returning to its original plans. However, for those doing business in Quebec, the debate is important to follow.
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