General Court of EU Allows L’Oréal to Continue With Single-Letter Mark

In the case of L’Oréal v. European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO), the General Court of the European Union held that for the protection of single marks consisting of two signs, the trademarks must not be compared on their dominant elements alone. In holding this, L’Oréal was granted the right to continue using its mark “K Water” as it differed from another cosmetic business that owned the mark “K.”

L’Oréal had applied for the figurative trademark “K” below, which was mentioned as “K Water” for hair cosmetics in Class 3. A prior owner of the single-letter figurative trademark “K,” protected for the sale of shampoos under Class 3, filed an opposition against L’Oréal’s application. L’Oréal claimed that under Article 8(1)(b) of the European Regulation 2017/1001 (EUTMR), there is a likelihood that the two trademarks would cause confusion.

In the first instance, EUIPO’s opposition division rejected the opposition, stating there was no likelihood of confusion. An appeal was filed by the owner of the older trademark, which was upheld by the office’s board of appeals. Further, L’Oréal filed an action before the General Court alleging infringement of Art. 8(1)(b) of EUTMR. The Court annulled the decision again by denying a likelihood of confusion between the two marks.

The Court held that in deciding whether the opposed trademarks are similar, the marks must be examined as a composite trademark, which can be dominated by one or several components. While both the letters are K and hence similar, L’Oréal’s “K Water” lends a secondary overall impression that is a significant and notable part of the whole trademark. The Court held that these elements could not be disregarded when comparing the two signs. It was also stated that the two signs were not entirely similar as the graphic and stylistic differences were visible, which will be helpful to the public in distinguishing the two brands from each other. 

Single-letter trademarks are recognised under Article 4 of the EUTMR, allowing courts to assess a mark’s distinctiveness. In the present case, the single-letter mark had a degree of distinctiveness as it was stylised and combined with other relative figurative elements, which affords it a de facto monopoly.

The Court held that a single-letter trademark could not be granted protection in such broad terms, even within the global assessment of the likelihood of confusion. Therefore, the Court held that single-letter trademarks could not be successfully opposed to trademarks of the same letter unless there were relevant similarities between both signs. Stylised single-letter trademarks have a broader scope of protection due to their distinctiveness, whereas minimally stylised trademarks enjoy a low distinctive character.