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New Zealand’s strict “use it or lose it” approach in partial revocation proceedings differs from Australia’s approach

  • Mar 23, 2021
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Office of the Retirement Commissioner v Cash Converters Pty Ltd [2020] NZIPOTM 27 (23 December 2020)

This recent decision provides helpful guidance on the principles for partial revocation of trade mark registrations in New Zealand and the determination of a “fair description” for goods and services.

The decision also highlights important differences between the law and practice on non-use removal proceedings in Australia and New Zealand.

Background

Cash Converters Pty Ltd (“Cash Converters”) sought partial revocation of the Office of the Retirement Commissioner’s (ORC) Registration No. 637400 SORTED. It covered Class 36 services in providing advisory, consultancy and information services relating to finance, investment and financial planning for and during retirement, and providing financial information relating to retirement.

They also sought partial revocation of Registration No. 976028 SORTED, which covered broadly worded Class 36 services “financial affairs; monetary affairs; real estate affairs” and various services in providing advice, consultancy and information the areas of finance, monetary affairs, retirement, real estate, property and insurance and Class 41 educational services and services in providing educational material and information relating to insurance, financial affairs, monetary affairs, real estate affairs.  The full specifications for the registrations are at [1].  

Revocation was sought on the basis of non-use of the SORTED mark for a continuous period of three years.

Facts/evidence

ORC started using its SORTED mark in 2001, when it established its website www.sorted.com for providing information and tools, such as online calculators, to help New Zealanders prepare for, and manage, their finances during retirement. 

From at least 2013 ORC’s use of SORTED expanded to a broader range of services in providing information, advice and resources to promote “the life-long financial literacy of New Zealanders”.  With this expansion in 2013, ORC obtained the later Registration No. 976028 SORTED for the broader range of services. 

ORC’s evidence of use included use of the SORTED mark on guides, booklets, seminar and course details, on online tools and calculators and on an online forum.  [2]

Discussion

As the SORTED mark had not been used on all of the services covered by the registrations, partial revocation was in order.   

The Assistant Commissioner noted the High Court decision in Sky Network Television Ltd v Sky Fiber Inc (Sky Network) confirming how partial revocation applications should be considered:

The case law establishes that the first task is to find as a fact what goods or services there has been genuine use of the trade mark in relation to; and then to ‘arrive at a fair specification of goods having regard to the use made’.”  [3]

ORC was found to have used the SORTED mark to provide generalised information, advice and education on retirement planning and financial literacy generally.  ORC was also found to have used the mark to provide online calculator tools and an online community forum which provided users with more specific information and recommendations. 

In considering what was a “fair description” of those services provided under the mark, the Assistant Commissioner identified the principles set out by Mallon J in Sky Network:

“(a) The assessment has “nothing to do with the defendant.” Defining the goods negatively by reference to the defendants’ activities is therefore not the approach. 

(b) The proprietor has protection outside his or her specification of goods in areas where he or she can demonstrate a likelihood of deception under other provisions. “There is no pressing need, therefore, to confer on the proprietor a wider protection than his [or her] use warrants by unduly broadening the specification of goods.

(c) The width of the surviving specification “must depend largely upon questions of fact and degree.”  “Wide words can cover what are commercially quite different sorts of articles”.  If there is shown to be use of just one of those things “it would be commercially nonsense to maintain the registration for all goods caused by the wide words”. [4]

In summary, and further quoting Mallon J in Sky Network, the Assistant Commissioner noted that:

The “fair description” is one “which would be given in the context of trade mark protection” and depends on the nature of the goods, the circumstances of the trade and the breadth of use proved” and should be approached as ““objective and impartial, balancing the competing interests” and “a view from the trade”.[5]

The Assistant Commissioner recognised the important “balancing exercise” of competing interests of the owner, competitors and the public:

  1. to have the Register uncluttered with unused marks or with registrations with overly broad specifications;
  2. to prevent parties being unjustifiably exposed to infringement of registrations with overly broad specifications; and
  3. “the owner’s interest in protecting its brand” which “aligns with the public interest in consumers not being deceived or confused by use of another trade mark” and the owner’s entitlement “to commercially realistic protection, remembering the test for infringement, extends to similar goods and services”.  [6]

Findings 

The scope of the original specifications was considered to “extend well beyond the actual use that had been made of the SORTED mark”.  [7]

The Assistant Commissioner considered that a “fair description” of the services offered under the SORTED mark could be reached by considering the “functions (the way the mark has been used) and the generalised, rather than personalised, nature of the education, information and advice ORC provides”.  [8] 

ORC was not using the SORTED mark in relation to all types of information, education and advisory services in the areas of insurance, finance, money, real estate and investment.  Those services were all provided in giving advice and information focusing on retirement and personal financial literacy, and not on all aspects of insurance, finance, money and other matters.

The Assistant Commissioner found that it was appropriate to limit the specifications to reflect the focus of the use and reworded the services more narrowly and as all “relating [or related] to retirement and personal finance”.

Further, ORC’s advice was not personalised advice given to individuals.  Rather, it was generalised advice and information.  The general description “advisory services relating to…” in the original Class 36 specifications for both registrations was considered too broad.  The Assistant Commissioner considered that it would be fair to describe those services as “general advice relating to…”.

The original term “consultancy services relating to…” used in the Class 36 specifications for both registrations was removed because ORC would not be reasonably understood to be a consultancy business.  The Assistant Commissioner noted that “there is no aspect of the ORC business that technically requires the description to be used. ORC is able to have commercially realistic protection without the reference to consultancy”.  [9]

The full specifications as amended are at footnote  [10].

Earlier cases considering partial revocation

The Assistant Commissioner provided a helpful summary of earlier partial revocation cases and what was found to be a “fair description” for the goods and services.  This can be found at paragraph 71. 

These decisions show that precise descriptions are applied in partial revocation actions and that broad and unqualified descriptions are unlikely to be allowed under New Zealand practice. 

Comparison with Australian law

The decision highlights some important differences between the law on revocation/non-use removal actions in Australia and New Zealand. 

1. Discretion to remove or restrict a registration

The Assistant Commissioner noted in the decision that there is no “overriding discretion to refuse to revoke or partially revoke a registration”, which follows from the decision Crocodile International Pte Ltd v Lacoste [2017] NZSC 14 at [97].  [11]  Under New Zealand law, a trade mark owner must show use during the three year non-use period, or special circumstances that justify non-use of their mark, to successfully oppose a revocation application.

Unlike New Zealand, under Australian law the Registrar has the discretion under s 101(3) of the Trade Marks Act 1995 not to remove a registration even where there has not been use of the mark if “satisfied that it is reasonable” not to remove the registration.  Further, s 101(4) provides that in deciding under subsection (3) not to remove a registration the Registrar may take into account use of the mark on similar goods or closely related services or similar services or closely related goods. 

2. Standing to apply for removal for non use

New Zealand law requires that only an “aggrieved person” can apply for revocation of a registration.   As noted in the decision “the term “aggrieved person” is given a wide and liberal interpretation.  This will generally include trade rivals.  As well as someone who is disadvantaged in a legal or practical way.”  [12]

However, under Australian law any person can apply for removal of a registration for non-use and there is no requirement for the removal applicant to show aggrievement to have standing to apply for removal. 

3. Date of revocation

In the New Zealand decision, the Assistant Commissioner noted that “the result of revocation is that the owner’s rights cease to exist on the date the application revocation was filed, or at an earlier date if the Commissioner is satisfied the non-use ground has been made out at an earlier date.”  [13]

Under Australian law, the date of removal of a registration for non-use is the date of the Registrar’s decision and the Registrar does not have the discretion to determine an earlier date for removal.

Takeaway

There are important differences in relation to standing and discretion in revocation/non-use removal proceedings in New Zealand and Australia which trade mark owners should note.

When defending a non-use removal action in Australia, and there has been no use of the mark during the 3 year non-use period, trade mark owners should still consider whether there are grounds for convincing the Registrar to refuse removal of the registration, such as some residual reputation in the mark from earlier use or possibly overseas reputation.

In New Zealand, it is much more likely than it is in Australia that broad descriptions will be restricted to more specific and limited descriptions.


[1] Services covered by Registration No. 637400 SORTED:

Class 36:Providing advisory, consultancy and information services relating to finance, investment and financial planning for and during retirement; providing financial information relating to retirement by means of telecommunication and electronic networks including online, via a global or other communications network, the world-wide web, an intranet or the Internet

Services covered by Registration No. 976028 SORTED:

Class 36: Financial affairs; monetary affairs; real estate affairs; providing advisory, consultancy and information services relating to finance, investment and financial planning for and during retirement; advisory services relating to real estate ownership; providing financial information relating to retirement by means of telecommunication and electronic networks including online, via a global or other communications network, the world-wide web, an intranet or the Internet; consultancy services relating to insurance; information services relating to insurance; insurance advisory services; insurance information; provision of insurance information; consultation services relating to real estate; providing information, including online, about insurance, financial and monetary affairs and real estate affairs; provision of information in relation to real estate; provision of information relating to property (real estate); provision of information relating to real estate; real estate advisory; services; real estate investment advice

Class 41: Dissemination of educational material; education services; educational services; life coaching (training or education services); provision of educational information; provision of education services via an online forum; publication of educational materials; publication of educational texts; the aforementioned relating to insurance, financial affairs, monetary affairs, real estate affairs

[2] Arguing that ORC did not provide financial advisory services, Cash Converters’ evidence in support of the revocation application referred to ORC’s disclaimers on its website that its information and tools “should be treated as a guide only” and should be used before seeking professional advice.  It was also noted that ORC’s “Investor Kickstarter” guide is referred to on the website as a guide only which  “does not constitute investment advice to any person”.  The evidence also noted that ORC is not a registered financial services provider under the Financial Services Provider (Regulation and Dispute Resolution) Act 2008 (RDR Act). 

In reply, ORC filed evidence that it is not required to be registered under the RDR Act as it is not a business which provides financial services as defined under the Act.  ORC also noted that their “Investor Kickstarter” tool asks high level questions to categorise participants into one of five types of investors and that their disclaimer clarifies that the advice given through this tool is not the type of financial advice to which the Financial Advisors Act 2008 would apply. 

[3] Office of the Retirement Commissioner v Cash Converters Pty Ltd [2020] NZIPOTM 27 (23 December 2020), paragraph 39.

[4] ibid, paragraph 44.

[5] ibid, paragraph 45.

[6] ibid, paragraph 52.

[7] ibid, paragraph 110.

[8] ibid, paragraph 113.

[9] ibid, paragraph 96.

[10] Registration No. 637400

Class 36: Providing information services and general advice relating to finance, investment and financial planning for and during retirement; providing financial information and general advice relating to retirement by means of telecommunication and electronic networks including online, via a global or other communications network, the worldwide web, an intranet or the Internet

Registration 976028

Class 36: Providing information and general advice, including online, about insurance, financial and monetary affairs and real estate affairs related to retirement and personal finance; provision of financial calculation services relating to retirement and personal financial planning including budgeting, personal debt, home buying, mortgages, superannuation, investment and savings, including by way of online; calculators; providing information services and general advice relating to finance, investment and financial planning for and during retirement; providing financial information and general advice relating to retirement by means of telecommunication and electronic networks including online, via a global or other communications network, the world-wide web, an intranet or the Internet.

Class 41: Education services related to retirement and personal financial matters including financial planning and budgeting, debt, home buying, mortgages, superannuation, investment and savings; provision and dissemination of educational material and information related to retirement and personal financial matters, including by way online communication, websites, web blogs, social media, forums, publications (including texts, guides and brochures), news articles, training, courses, seminars and meetings.

[11] ibid, paragraph 12 quoting  Crocodile International Pte Ltd v Lacoste [2017] NZSC 14 at [97]

[12] ibid, paragraph 28.

[13] ibid, paragraph 11.

Authored by Michelle Howe and Sean McManis