Combe International Ltd v Dr August Wolff GmbH & Co. KG Arzneimittel  FCAFC 8
Following on from our previous article, in a successful appeal by Combe International Ltd, the Full Federal Court disagreed with the primary judge’s approach to assessing deceptive similarity. As a result, it refused registration of the VAGISAN trade mark by Dr August Wolff GmbH & Co. KG Arzneimittel.
Dr August Wolff GmbH & Co. KG Arzneimittel(Dr Wolff) is a German pharmaceutical company. It filed an application for VAGISAN on 27 May 2015 for the following goods:
Class 3: Soaps and cosmetics, all aforementioned goods not for the indication and application of tired legs and/or arms
Class 5: Pharmaceutical products, sanitary products for medical purposes; dietetic substances for medical purposes, all aforementioned goods not for the indication and application of tired legs and/or arms
Combe International Ltd (Combe) is a US company that markets and sells a range of personal cleansing, health and grooming products and is the owner of prior registrations for or incorporating VAGISIL. These registrations include the following goods:
Class 3: Medicated lotions and medicated creams; non-medicated products for feminine use
Class 5: Medicated products for feminine use; vaginal lubricants; medicated creams, gels, lotions
A delegate of the Registrar of Trade Marks refused registration of the VAGISAN trade mark on 29 September 2017 under s60 of the Trade Marks Act 1995 based on Combe’s prior reputation in its VAGISIL trade mark.
Federal Court Decision
The primary judge disagreed with the delegate’s decision and decided that Combe had failed to establish any ground of opposition.
On the issue of deceptive similarity (section 44), the primary judge found that the VAGISAN and VAGISIL trade marks are likely to be understood as indicating products to be used in relation to the female genital area. The primary judge took the view that the prefixes VAG and VAGI are descriptive, and that, as a consequence, the words VAGISAN and VAGISIL do not have a close phonetic resemblance. In his view neither of the words lends itself to mispronunciation, and the suffixes SIL and SAN are quite distinct.
Combe was also not able to establish that a significant or substantial number of potential customers might be confused or deceived by the VAGISAN mark such as to wonder whether there is any connection between it and VAGISIL, given Combe’s reputation (section 60) in the VAGISIL trade mark
Regarding the final opposition ground (section 59), the primary judge considered the fact that soap and cosmetic products were proposed to be introduced into Australia was sufficient intention to use the VAGISAN trade mark in respect of the designated goods.
The Federal Court decision is reported here.
Appeal to the Full Federal Court
In its Notice of Appeal, Combe claimed that the primary judge erred in his assessment of deceptive similarity between VAGISIL and VAGISAN by:
- comparing the two words side by side;
- engaging in a meticulous comparison of the two words, letter by letter and syllable by syllable with a clear pronunciation;
- failing to give proper consideration to the notional consumer’s imperfect recollection of VAGISIL;
- failing to give proper regard to the importance of the first syllable of each word and the tendency of English speakers to slur the endings of words;
- breaking each word into component parts, assessing the descriptive and distinctive qualities of those parts and thus failing to pay proper regard to the whole of each mark;
- failing to assess the whole of each mark as a coined term with no actual meaning; and/or
- assessing the SAN element of VAGISAN as a distinctive and not descriptive feature, despite finding that SAN is readily understood as a reference to sanitary.
- not giving sufficient weight to the high-volume and low-value nature of the VAGISAN Goods when making his assessment.
Section 44 – Deceptive Similarity
After consideration of the primary judge’s reasoning regarding deceptive similarity, the Full Court disagreed with the primary judge’s approach for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the VAGISAN and VAGISIL trade mark both have the same first five letters, they both have three syllables, and the VAGIS component is pronounced the same way. The only differences between the marks is the final two letters “AN” and “IL, and the only aural difference, being that between SIL and SAN, may be mispronounced or slurred.
Secondly, the idea of the mark is important in the consideration of deceptive similarity. In this case, consumers are likely to consider VAG or VAGI to be a reference to the vagina. Further, the first two syllables of both marks are likely to be remembered. While a similarity in idea may be insufficient for a finding of deceptive similarity if there is an absence of visual or aural similarity, in this case, the VAGISAN and VAGISIL marks also have visual and aural similarity.
Thirdly, the primary judge appeared to wrongly assume that the classes 3 and 5 goods of both the VAGISAN and VAGISIL trade marks were confined to goods for vaginal use, due to the descriptive nature of the prefixes VAG and VAGI. However, when assessing deceptive similarity, the notional use of the respective marks should have been considered, and the range of goods went beyond those for vaginal use.
In light of the above, the Full Court concluded that VAGISAN was deceptively similar to VAGISIL. The VAGISAN trade mark was refused.
Section 60 – Reputation
This ground of opposition was not considered, as the matter had already been decided by the Full Court’s findings on the conflict with Combe’s earlier registrations.
Takeaway and final comments
The Full Court decision provides guidance on the various factors that should be considered when assessing the deceptive similarity of trade marks. In particular, it is a reminder that marks should be considered and compared in their entirety.
In a further development, Dr Wolff has filed an application for the composite mark DR WOLFF’S VAGISAN, covering similar goods in classes 3 and 5 to its VAGISAN word mark. This application has been opposed by Combe.