Gentlefile – Trademarking Portmanteau Words

Gentlefile is a portmanteau of ‘gentle’ and ‘file’. An Israel trademark application was filed for the GENTLEFILE covering flexible soft dental files. Ill-advisedly, the pending application was then used as the basis for an International application under Madrid.

Medic NRG Ltd filed Israel trademark application No. 255358 for the word Gentlefile. The application covers surgical, medical, dlogoental and veterinary apparatus and instruments; parts and accessories for the aforementioned products; all included in class 10.

The Application was filed on 1 May 2015 and was the basis for subsequent International Application No. 1189965 under the Madrid Protocol in accordance with Section 56(c)(1) of the Trademark Ordinance 1972.

On 17 September 2014 the Trademark Department of the Israel Patent Office refused the Application under Section 8(a) and 11(10) of the Ordinance as lacking inherent distinctiveness and being descriptive of the goods covered. The Examiner considered that the word was a portmanteau of gentle and file, and implied a filing implement that was mild or tender, and consequently the term was descriptive of dental filing apparatus. The Examiner stated that the term implied:

Devices and equipment that are smooth or soft, mild tender to the touch and which deflect on use or gentle touch medical equipment that gives a pleasant and good feeling to patients.

Furthermore, after reviewing the Internet website of the Applicant, the Examiner concluded that since the main activity of the applicant is to provide dental equipment, the term file is descriptive by its nature.

little-shop-of-horrorsThe Applicant claimed that the mark is distinctive and the goods to be protected are not soft, smooth or pleasant dental equipment and so the mark is not descriptive. The Applicant further alleged that a reasonable person would not associate the mark with dental equipment since smooth, soft, mild instruments can be used in a variety of fields, and at the Examiner’s request the Applicant appended examples of usage of the mark in its publicity material and the description of goods accepted on its basis by the United States trademark office on 12 August 2014.

mr-bean-dentistThe Examiner was not convinced and issued a second Office Action. In response the Applicant claimed that the applied for mark had many alternatives meanings and none of them described the goods covered. The Applicant claimed that the word file meant case, computer document, line or rasp, and that the Applicant had developed the mark and used it for years and had now began registering around the world, including the European Community, the United States, China and Russia.

The Examiner dug in her heels and continued to hold the mark non-registerable.  She claimed that the term file was a rasp-like instrument that was used in root canal treatment and the term “gentle file” is descriptive in that it relates to a flexible hand tool. The Examiner provided examples of dentists referring to such a tool as being a file and noted that it only requires one of the meanings to be a generic description to make a mark non-registerable.

oral-proceedingThe Applicant requested a judicial ruling based on the arguments on record and an oral proceeding.

RULING

The Deputy Commissioner Ms Jacqueline Bracha summed up the legal question as whether GENTLEFILE is inherently distinctive, and, if not, whether it can be considered as having acquired distinctiveness.

Section 8 of the Ordinance makes registerability dependent on distinctiveness:

8.—(a) No mark is eligible for registration as a trade mark unless it is adapted to distinguish the goods of the proprietor of the mark from those of other persons (a mark so adapted being hereinafter referred to as a “distinctive mark”).

(b) In determining whether a trade mark is distinctive, the Registrar or the Court may, in the case of a trade mark in actual use, take into consideration the extent to which such use has rendered such trade mark in fact distinctive for goods in respect of which it is registered or intended to be registered.

A trademark having distinctive character enables distinguishing the goods of one company from another. See the Bible Seligsohn “Trademark Laws and Related Legislation” page 20 (1973).

It is generally considered that marks fall into the following categories: generic, descriptive, indicative, randomly selected and made up. There is a continuum from generic marks to made up ones (See 5792/99 Communication and Religious-Jewish Education Family (1997) Ltd “Family” Magazine vs. SBS Advertising, Marketing and Sales Promotion Ltd. “Good Family” Magazine, Supreme Court Ruling 2001(11) 534 (23 May 2001). At the made up mark end are marks with inherent distinctiveness, whereas at the generic end are marks that cannot be registered.

Section 11(10) of the Ordinance determines that marks that describe the goods that they are to label cannot be registered unless they have acquired distinctiveness:

a mark consisting of numerals, letters or words which are in common use in trade to distinguish or describe goods or classes of goods or which bear direct reference to their character or quality, unless the mark has a distinctive character within the meaning of section 8(b) or 9;

The mere fact that a descriptive mark is not in Hebrew does not make it registerable in Israel since the accepted terms should remain in the public domain, even if they are not in Hebrew. (Seligsohn page 35, and 3552/02 Toto Gold Club Ltd vs. The Counsel for Regulating Sports Gambling (26 September 2004).

Thus the general rule is that there is no place to drag descriptive names from common language and to remove them from the public domain and to relate them to specific goods unless they have acquired distinctiveness. 

The degree of descriptiveness of a mark is determined with respect to the intended goods or services and not in a vacuum. (see Appeal 21488-05-11 Eveready Battery Company Inc.  vs. The Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks 8 December 2011. The mark will be considered in its entirety and not analyzed into its components as this is how the consumer regards the mark (see Appeal 5454/02 Tiv Taam  Teva (1988) Tivoli vs. Ambrosia Superhav Pd 57(2) 438).

No-one denies that the marks are intended for medical usage in general and for dentistry in particular. The consumer in this instance is not the general public but rather dentistry practitioners such as dental surgeons, assistants, dental technicians and the like. So the way the mark is regarded has to be considered from their perspective and not from that of others not in the field.

The applied for mark is a combination of two words without a space so that they are viewed as a single word. The portmanteau word comprises file and gentle which mean mild and a tool that is generally steel that has sharp crevices and is used to smooth and flatten surfaces such as human teeth. In dentistry this tool is used to remove plaque from teeth. The word file also means computer document, divisional arrangement and line.

When considering the words in the appropriate context, that is with regards to medical devices for dental applications, the Deputy Commissioner concludes that both ‘gentle’ and ‘file’ are descriptive terms. That the words have other meanings in different contexts to a different audience in no way detracts from them being descriptive in the relevant field, since one has to consider the marks with respect to the services and goods for which they are to be used. The word file has a specific dental meaning and the word gentle is a qualifier that describes a relevant property whose meaning is well understood in this context. As the Examiner concluded, in this instance, we are dealing with flexible tools and it transpires from the Applicant’s own marketing material that it is their softness/gentleness that describes them.

The mark should be considered in its entirety as this is how the target audience perceives it as a trademark. In this context the combination does add something beyond the sum of the parts which increases the likelihood of the mark being considered registerable.

However, it has been determined that merely joining two words together is insufficient to render a mark distinctive unless the combination provides added value. With reference to Page 38 of Seligsohn:

A complex mark of this type cannot over time and through usage lose the plain meaning of the words from which it is comprised, rather a combination has to inherently include something imaginative that the descriptiveness is no longer revealed.

In this regard, reference is made to the Opposition against Israel Trademark Application No. 202424 “MAXIMUMASP” MAXIMUMASP LLC vs. Sky Net Group Ltd (30 June 2010:

The element that Judge Zilberg refers to as “An invention”, and which the European Court calls “Linguistically Unique” is not separate from the second element, that is having acquired a separate meaning from the original one. This means to say, the creativeness is the originality that changes two known and descriptive words into a third phrase which in turn indicates or describes the original meaning, is tested not just in that the phrase adds something, but that the addition provides the phrase with a meaning that is blatant and is the first thing to jump into the viewer’s brain, and which clouds out the original meaning, even were he to think of the original meaning if contemplating the mark. We can already say that the mere combining of two words into one, and even if a letter is thereby deleted, is no proof that the resultant word has the inventiveness required.

The term ‘Gentlefile’ is indeed a portmanteau of two words rolled into one, but it does not appear that the combination creates a new meaning beyond the literal meaning of the combination. In this instance there isn’t even a letter that has been deleted or changed, merely the space between the noun and adjective has been deleted. Thus the combination lacks the essential element of inventiveness that creates an additional meaning beyond the original meaning of gentle file.

Without ruling on whether the combination is too descriptive to be able to acquire distinctiveness through use (2673/04 Appeal Copy to Go marketing (1997 Ltd. vs Israel Shaqued 15 April 2007) the Applicant has not furnished sufficient evidence to persuade that the mark has indeed acquired distinctiveness as required for registration under Section 8(b) of the Ordinance.

Examining acquired distinctiveness of a mark is done with reference to how long the mark is in use, the amount of publicity gained and the resources invested by the Applicant / Owner in creating a linkage between the mark and the goods in the public perception. (see Toto above). Furthermore, one should examine if due to the mark the public connects the goods and services with the mark Applicant/Owner. (see Appeal 18/86 Israel Class Company Venezia vs. Les Verries de Saint Gobain, p.d. 45(3) 224, 238 (1991).

The Applicant did append examples of advertising material from Israel and abroad showing the mark to their responses to the Office Action, and also submitted examples of registrations for the mark from other countries. The Applicant did  not supply details of sales, investment in marketing, the period over which the mark was in use, and the like.

Where marks are far from the imaginative end of the spectrum and are more descriptive-generic, it is more difficult for the Applicant to meet the burden of proof to show acquired distinctiveness. (see Toto paragraph 9). Since the Applicant did not append sufficient evidence to prove this and relied on foreign advertising and registrations, without additional evidence there is no way to ascertain that there is local acquired distinctiveness.

In conclusion, Ms Bracha ruled that the Application be rejected.

Ruling by Deputy Commissioner Ms Jacqueline Bracha on Registerability of Israel Trademark Application No. 255258 Gentlefile, 21 September 2016

COMMENT
Where a mark is arguably descriptive such as in this case, it is not advisable to use a pending application as the basis of a Madrid filing since central attack on the application voids the Madrid trademark registrations.

What I believe the Applicant should have done in this case is to first register the logo that appears above. The mere addition of the graphic element makes this more than a mere combination of words. Using this as a logo without challenges will be good evidence of acquired distinctiveness when subsequently attempting to register the portmanteau word. It is likely that the company sells dental tools worldwide and does not concentrate on the local market which is small since there are only 8.5 million Israelis for dentists to treat. In a small market it is possible to acquire distinctiveness and to become the market leader but this requires strategically deciding to do so. As always, descriptive names should be avoided.

It is difficult to blame the Attorney of record in this case as it is more than likely that they provided good advice and the client went ahead and chose a poor name and tried to protect it. If they didn’t, there would be little work for trademark attorneys.

 

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