Lesser known crimes: is that trade mark really registered?

Do you use the ® symbol and, if so, do you know what it means? If you don’t, you might be committing an offence.

I have written before about the different legal structures under which a business may be run. The only reference to trade mark law in that post was to point out that a registered business name is not, of itself, a trade mark.

The Trade Marks Act 1996 defines a trade mark as “any sign capable of being represented graphically which is capable of distinguishing goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings.” This is an example of legalese.

The Patents Office, which handles the registration of marks, offers a more helpful definition:

A trade mark is the means by which a business identifies its goods or services and distinguishes them from the goods and services supplied by other businesses.

You might identify your business using a company or registered business name and therefore use it as a trade mark. However, it is not a registered trade mark. A registered trade mark provides a monopoly on the use of trade mark: it stops others from using it. Of course, there are limitations to that monopoly and not all marks can be registered. See here for a good FAQ on registered trade marks.

Whatever about the detail of trade mark law, the ™ and ® symbols are familiar to us all. But what do they mean?

  • Using the symbol indicates that you are using a name or logo as a trade mark. It does not offer specific protection. However, you might take an action for passing off (which is like suing on the basis of an unregistered trade mark) and will obviously require evidence of using the mark as a trade mark. Use accompanied by the ™ sign may assist.
  • Using the ® symbol indicates that the name or logo is registered as a trade mark.

The difference is not merely technical. Section 94 of the Trade Marks Act 1996 provides that it is an offence to falsely represent that a mark is registered. The fine was originally a maximum of £1,000 with a further fine of up to £100 per day for a continuing offence.

The recent Fines Act 2010, which has been signed into law by the President but has not yet been commenced by the Minister for Justice and Law Reform, will increase these fines. If my reading of the Act is correct, a section 94 offence will become a Class C offence and therefore carry a maximum fine of €2,500, with the daily fine for continuing offences becoming a Class E offence with a fine of up to €500 per day.

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