Litigation procedures and strategies: United Kingdom
Legislative framework and causes of action
Trademark law in the United Kingdom is governed by the Trademarks Act (1994), as amended, which implements the EU Trademarks Directive (2008/95/EC) to approximate the laws of the EU member states.
All parties conducting civil litigation in the United Kingdom should follow the Civil Procedure Rules, which set out how cases should be conducted before and after proceedings have been issued. Litigation is usually seen as a last resort in the United Kingdom and the courts expect parties to try to settle disputes without recourse to litigation wherever possible. Accordingly, trademark owners usually send infringers cease and desist or demand letters, incorporating appropriate undertakings for the infringer to sign, in an attempt to resolve the matter without the need for court proceedings. The English courts take a proactive approach to case management and can utilise costs awards to incentivise parties to conduct litigation proportionately.
Section 10 of the Trademarks Act states that a UK-registered trademark will be infringed if a sign is used in the course of trade in the United Kingdom which is:
- identical to the trademark and used in relation to goods or services which are identical to those for which the trademark was registered;
- identical or similar to the trademark and used in relation to goods or services which are identical or similar to those for which the trademark was registered, where there exists a likelihood of confusion on the part of the relevant public (including a likelihood of association); or
- identical or similar to a trademark with a reputation in the United Kingdom and where the use of the sign without due cause takes unfair advantage of or is detrimental to the distinctive character or repute of the trademark.
The Trademarks Act also includes separate provisions on criminal offences which are usually enforced by the Police and Trading Standards. EU trademarks are also enforceable in the United Kingdom and the test for infringement is the same as for UK-registered marks. Until Brexit is finalised, the UK courts will continue to serve as EU trademark courts. As to the position post-Brexit, both the draft Withdrawal Agreement and the Guidance Notes from the UK government on the implications of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit anticipate that registered EU trademarks will automatically be converted into equivalent UK trademarks (with no examination required) and continue to take effect in the United Kingdom. The exact mechanism by which this will occur has yet to be established.
Parties litigating in the United Kingdom should be aware of the laws relating to unjustified threats. These provisions are intended to prevent spurious threats of trademark infringement being made against traders and distributors, whose fear of being involved in costly litigation may result in them capitulating and their businesses being damaged, even where the trademark at issue is invalid or not infringed.
The law of unjustified threats has recently been reformed and new legislation came into force in October 2017 which clarified certain provisions of the Trademarks Act. However, care must still be taken when sending cease and desist letters to traders and distributors, as such letters could constitute actionable threats which may entitle their recipients to commence proceedings at court and seek an injunction to restrain further threats, along with damages.
Unregistered rights are protected under the common law tort of passing off, which protects goodwill accrued through trading activities conducted in the United Kingdom. A claim for passing off is often run in conjunction with a claim for registered trademark infringement; however, passing off may be the only cause of action available if no trademarks have been registered.
In a claim for passing off, the claimant must prove the following:
- goodwill in, for example, a trading name or get up – it is generally easier to establish goodwill when the claimant has been trading for a number of years, although it is sometimes established after only a short period of time, depending on the scale of activity;
- a misrepresentation by the defendant to the public, leading or likely to lead people to believe that the goods or services offered by the defendant are the goods or services of the claimant, or commercially connected with the claimant (eg, licensed or a brand extension); and
- damage to the claimant as a result of the defendant’s misrepresentation – this could be loss of sales or more intangible damage arising as a result of being mistakenly associated with the defendant.
It is generally difficult to succeed in a claim for passing off based on the get-up of products alone, as in such cases the ‘look and feel’ or shape of a product must serve as an indication of origin in its own right. The evidence required to support such a claim tends to be difficult to gather and, as discussed below, surveys are not generally favoured by the courts.
The United Kingdom has no law of unfair competition as such, although passing off shares some similarities with unfair competition law principles in continental European jurisdictions (eg, Germany).
Alternative dispute resolution
The Civil Procedure Rules encourage parties to try to settle matters without recourse to full court proceedings and the courts will generally look unfavourably on parties who refuse to engage in alternative dispute resolution – indeed there may be unfavourable cost consequences. Many cases are settled via mediation before trial.
There is no formal requirement to engage in arbitration, unless there is a contract in place between the parties which contains an arbitration clause (in which case the arbitration clause will usually prevail over court litigation).
Litigation venue and format
The United Kingdom contains three separate judicial systems: England and Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. All courts within the United Kingdom are bound by the decisions of the Supreme Court.
It is standard practice that liability and quantum are bifurcated, meaning there will be a trial on infringement, followed – if appropriate – by an inquiry as to damages or an account of profits.
Trademark infringement proceedings are typically brought before either the High Court or the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court (IPEC).
The High Court is the premier venue in the United Kingdom for large and complex litigation. At the High Court there are, in principle, no limits on how much a claimant may claim in damages or the amount of costs which may be recovered by the successful party. However, the High Court will play an active role in managing costs and parties are likely to be subject to costs-management orders relating to approved cost budgets. These may be compulsory or – if discretionary – ordered at the request of one of the parties. Costs recoverable by the successful party, not subject to a costs-management order, will typically be between 60% to 70% of the costs actually incurred.
In contrast, the IPEC is intended to provide a cost-effective forum to hear IP claims. The focus is on active case management and streamlining proceedings. In the IPEC, the following rules apply:
- The court’s permission must be sought for disclosure, witness statements, expert evidence or cross examination of witnesses;
- The trial is limited to one or two days;
- Costs recoverable by the successful party are limited to £50,000; and
- Claims brought before the IPEC must not exceed £500,000 in value.
Claims valued at no more than £10,000 may be brought in the IPEC’s ‘small-claims track’ which is intended to be an even more streamlined and cost-efficient way of dealing with low-value claims. The recovery of legal costs in the small-claims track is extremely limited.
Due to its special procedural and costs rules, the IPEC is generally suited to less complex, lower-valued claims. This makes it most suitable for individuals and small to medium-sized enterprises, although larger businesses can make use of the forum so long as their claims satisfy the criteria.
Claims issued before the High Court or the IPEC will generally be listed for trial between 12 to 15 months from the date of issue. Judgments are generally handed down within three months after trial.
Courts fees will vary depending on the value of the claim and the remedies sought. They start at £35 for claims valued up to £300, and go up to £10,000 for claims valued at more than £200,000. Claimants seeking non-monetary relief (eg, an injunction) will incur an additional fee of £528 if litigating before the High Court, or £308 if litigating before the IPEC.
Damages and remedies
The owner of a trademark can recover damages in relation to acts of infringement. Damages may be calculated based on the profits lost by the claimant as a result of the infringement or based on the notional licence fee that the claimant and defendant would have agreed for use of the infringing mark.
While damages for infringement of a UK-registered trademark can be recovered from the date of the trademark application, the owner of an EU trademark may recover damages only in relation to acts of infringement committed after the date of registration. However, reasonable compensation may be claimed in respect of acts occurring after the date of publication.
Damages may include damage to reputation and goodwill, which – although difficult to assess – may yield a figure significantly higher than can be gained by opting for an account of profits.
Account of profits
An account of profits is an equitable remedy which requires the infringing party to surrender the profits made from its infringing activity. However, an account of profits is not intended to be punitive.
Claimants may seek damages or an account of profits, but not both. The choice between these remedies may lead to the claimant recovering very different amounts, so due consideration must be given to the election. Limited disclosure of financial information from the defendant may be available in order to assist the election process.
A permanent injunction is usually granted as a form of relief, following a finding of infringement at trial. Interim injunctive relief may also be granted at an earlier stage of proceedings, where appropriate.
An interim injunction is a discretionary remedy and is granted only in urgent circumstances. Exceptionally, an application for an interim injunction may be made without notice to the respondent, although the courts have emphasised that ‘without notice’ applications should be made only in very limited circumstances (eg, where giving notice would enable the defendant to take steps to defeat the purpose of the injunction).
Any application for an interim injunction (with or without notice) should be made as soon as possible after the applicant becomes aware of the circumstances requiring it. Indeed, a delay of just a few weeks can be fatal to the application. The applicant must also show that damages would be inadequate to compensate it for the respondent’s continued infringing activities up to the trial date.
The party seeking an interim injunction must also give a cross-undertaking in damages, by which the defendant will be compensated if it transpires that the interim injunction should not have been granted (ie, the infringement claim fails at full trial).
In practice, interim injunctions are relatively rarely sought in trademark cases.
Other remedies available to a successful claimant in a trademark infringement action include orders for:
- erasure, removal or obliteration of offending signs from infringing goods, materials or articles;
- delivery up and destruction of infringing goods, materials or articles; or
- payment of legal costs (usually a contribution).
Evidencing the case
Investigations and first steps
While there are no hard and fast rules, it is advisable to carry out proper enquiries before contacting the potential infringer and to record evidence of any infringing activities. For example, a potential claimant may keep records of any infringing items or activities found online, carry out test purchases and hire private investigators to conduct suitable investigations.
The court is generally reluctant to admit survey evidence in trademark infringement proceedings. Interflora Inc v Marks & Spencer plc ( EWCA Civ 1501) remains the leading UK authority governing situations where permission is sought to admit survey evidence. In deciding such matters, the court must be satisfied that the survey evidence will be of sufficient value to justify the costs involved. The court will consider:
- the method by which the survey participants are selected;
- the size of the survey;
- the questions asked (these must be non-leading questions);
- the exact answers provided by the participants (abbreviations or digests will not be accepted);
- the instructions given to participants; and
- the costs of carrying out the survey.
Use of expert witnesses
The use of expert testimony is subject to the permission and control of the court. Expert evidence is restricted to that which is reasonably necessary to resolve the proceedings. Expert evidence on issues such as likelihood of confusion is generally not admissible.
There are a number of statutory defences to trademark infringement, most of which are contained within Section 11 of the Trademarks Act, as follows:
- A UK trademark registration is not infringed by use of a later trademark registration in relation to goods and services for which the latter is registered. This defence does not apply if the later trademark is invalid.
- A person’s use of his or her own personal name or address does not constitute infringement, provided that such use is in accordance with honest practices in industrial or commercial matters. Regarding EU trademark infringements, this defence applies only to personal names (eg, not to company names). UK law is expected to be aligned with this in due course.
- Provided that such use is made in accordance with honest practices in industrial or commercial matters, it does not constitute infringement to use indications concerning:
- the kind, quality, quantity, intended purpose, value or geographical origin of the goods or services concerned;
- the time of production of the goods or rendering of the service concerned; or
- other characteristics of the goods or services concerned.
Further, a defence can be based on the continuous use, in the course of trade and in a particular locality, of an earlier right which applies only in that locality. An ‘earlier right’ is defined as an unregistered trademark or other sign continuously used in relation to goods or services to the extent that its use is protected by virtue of any law (in particular, passing off).
Article 16 of the EU Trademark Regulation (2017/1001) provides a new intervening rights defence to EU trademarks, granting a defence to proprietors of later EU trademarks in situations where the later trademark could not be invalidated. This defence is expected to be implemented into UK domestic law in due course.
Section 10(6) of the Trademarks Act provides that a registered trademark is not infringed by use of a mark for the purpose of identifying goods or services as those of the proprietor, as long as such use:
- is in accordance with honest commercial practices; and
- does not without due cause take unfair advantage of, or constitute a detriment to, the distinctive character or repute of the trademark.
However, this section has been criticised for its incompatibility with EU law, and no such defence applies to use of EU trademarks.
A party seeking to appeal a decision of a county court or the High Court (which includes the IPEC) may do so at the Court of Appeal and ultimately the Supreme Court. Permission to appeal must be sought and granted in relation to both levels of appeal. In deciding whether to give permission to appeal, the court will consider whether:
- the appeal would have a real prospect
- of success;
- there is any other compelling reason for the appeal to be heard; and
- it raises an issue of general public importance.
Appeals will usually only be allowed if the lower court erred in law or fact, or if the decision is unjust due to a serious procedural or other irregularity.