Trademark Law in the European Union: An Overview of the Case Law of the Court of Justice and the Court of First Instance (1997–2001)

9 Colum. J. Eur. L. 175 (2002)

Sébastien J. Evrard . Columbia University School of Law, L.L.M. Candidate, Class of 2003. See Treaty Establishing the European Community [TEC] art. 3(1)(c).

One intent of the Treaty Establishing the European Community was the creation of an internal market in which goods and services can freely circulate. Yet, disparities among the national trademark laws of the respective Member States can constitute an impediment to the free circulation of goods and services and distort competition within the internal market. The harmonization of European trademark law, which has begun with the adoption of two legal measures, is an attempt to resolve this impediment.

The first measure, the First Council Directive of December 21, 1988, (hereinafter “Harmonization Directive”), attempts to harmonize national trademark laws. Rather than attempting full-scale harmonization, the Harmonization Directive limits itself to the national provisions that are most likely to affect the functioning of the internal market. The directive thus defines signs that may be registered as trademarks, the grounds for refusal or invalidity of trademarks, and the rights conferred on trademark owners.   However, each Member State remains free to adopt independent procedures for the registration, revocation, and invalidation of trademarks or for deciding whether to adopt an opposition procedure. Member States were required to implement the various provisions of the Harmonization Directive by December 31, 1992.

The second measure is Council Regulation 40/94 of December 20, 1993, creating the Community trademark (hereinafter “CTM Regulation”), a trademark valid and enforceable in the entire territory of the European Union. A Community trademark can be obtained through single registration at the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) (hereinafter “OHIM”). The CTM Regulation establishes an autonomous system with its own objectives and rules, which apply independently of any national law.

European trademark law is thus composed of three layers: the first layer is comprised of 13 national regimes;” the second layer is the European Union’s CTM Regulation; and the third layer is made up of international treaties that bind the Member States.

European Union courts-the Court of First Instance and the Court of Justice-play a central role in the unity of interpretation of European trademark law. Indeed, upon request of a national court, the Court of Justice has the duty to give a preliminary ruling on the interpretation of a provision of European Union law.’ The Court of First Instance has competence to rule on appeals of decisions of the Board of Appeal of the OHIM (e.g., either accepting or rejecting a trademark application). Decisions of the Court of First Instance may be appealed before the Court of Justice.

The case law of the Court of Justice and the Court of First Instance is thus paramount in any analysis of European trademark law. In the period under study, both courts have produced interesting decisions that have advanced the harmonization contemplated by European lawmakers. This note provides an overview of these decisions. The following topics will be considered in turn: the registration of signs as trademarks, the rights conferred on trademark owners, and the principle of exhaustion of rights.