Data privacy has been a cause of concern for individuals and corporates, however, when sharing personal information with government authorities, we tend to overlook this concern. Has one ever wondered how secure her confidential, proprietary, or personal information is while sharing it with a government agency like the Trade Marks Registry?
Indian Intellectual Property Offices come under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry; therefore, they are under the control of the Central Government. The Trade Marks Registry, established in 1940, primarily acts as a facilitator in matters relating to the registration of trademarks in India.
The Trade Marks Registry (TMR) is a public filing system. That means once a trademark application is filed with the TMR, a lot of information is placed on record, including the applicant’s and its representative’s personal data, such as mailing address, and the proof of use of the trademark. The digitization of the Registry in 2017 prompted the current practice of recording information on a public access system.
Mailing Address: Open and easy access to such personal information exposes an applicant to scams and other unwanted solicitations. For instance, scam emails (that appear to have been sent by the TMR seeking maintenance fees) from third parties attempt to deceive applicants into paying additional fees. Everyone recalls how anyone who filed an international application between 2005 and 2015 was duped by international scammers who obtained their information from the WIPO. By oversight, many people were duped into paying huge amounts of money.
If an attorney represents an applicant, the TMR does not send correspondence about the trademark application directly to the applicant. In such cases, the Registry directly communicates with their authorised attorneys. Hence, if an applicant receives any mail relating to their trademark, they should consult their attorneys, who may evaluate it to guarantee that a scam letter is not mistaken for real contact.
Documents to support the use of the mark: Applicants are frequently required to submit documentary evidence to support their applications and commercial use of their marks. Such evidence is often public, but an applicant might disclose information they would not intend to make public, such as bills, financial papers, reports, and other confidential information. There is no mechanism to have them masked or deleted from the TMR’s database if such information is uploaded or disclosed.
Initiatives by the Trade Mark Registry
In recent times, the TMR has adopted the practice of restricting public access to evidentiary documents submitted during opposition/rectification proceedings that the competing parties upload on the TMR. However, similar documents filed during any other stage, such as filing and pre-opposition prosecution, are still exposed to public access, even if they are documents or information relating to commercial confidence, trade secrets, and/or any other form of confidential, proprietary, or personal information.
However, the advantage of such an open and publicly available database is that it serves as a countrywide “notice,” which means that an alleged infringer of your trademark cannot claim ignorance of your brand. However, disclosure of such information exposes applicants to email scams and other unwanted solicitations and can also harm their competitive position in the market.
In September 2019, on account of various representations made by numerous stakeholders regarding the TMR’s display of confidential, proprietary, and personal information, a public notice was issued by the Registry, inviting stakeholders’ comments on the aforesaid concerns.
The TMR proposed the classification of such documents into two categories:
- Category I: Documents that are fully accessible and available for viewing or downloading by the public.
- Category II: Documents for which details will be available in the document description column, but viewing and downloading will be restricted.
Roadblocks and Viable Course of Action
Notably, the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, obligates public authorities to make information on their respective platforms available to the public in a convenient and easily accessible manner. There are some notable exceptions to this rule, i.e., information related to commercial confidence and trade secrets is exempted from being disclosed or made accessible to the public in so far as their disclosure leads to a competitive handicap for the disclosing party. Personal information is also exempted to the extent that its disclosure leads to an invasion of privacy or if it has no relation to public activity or interest.
Hence, it is crucial to understand that while such a classification, as has been suggested by the TMR above, might seem like a good initiative on the surface, the lack of any concrete boundaries assigned to the terms “confidential” or “personal” information leaves the Registry with unquestioned discretion to generalise datasets and to restrict access to documents on the TMR website. A simple example could be data collected by the TMR through pre-designated forms, including Form TM A, Form TM O, etc. Most of these forms generally mandate the submission of certain personal information, including the proprietor’s name, address, telephone number, etc. However, this cannot simply mean that the TMR denies the general public access to such trademark application forms, as this would defeat the primary goal of advertising such marks on the Registry, which is to seek any opposition or evidence against such marks. Thus, while the objective behind such a classification of documents might be well-intended, restriction of access to certain documents might lead to a conflict of interest for the TMR, and it might end up over-complicating the due-diligence processes, leading to increased costs and resources.
Such generalised classifications are, hence, only viable in theory. The TMR might end up entertaining hundreds of RTI applications if it decides to limit access to certain documents, which might be necessary for proper due diligence and prosecution. The free and open availability of documents enables the public to have smoother and easier access to essential records and credentials of the trademark proprietors, thereby allowing the masses to have a better understanding of the prosecution history of important trademarks of the target company.
In the long run, a rather sustainable alternative for the TMR might be introducing a multi-factor authentication system for the parties interested in carrying out due diligence or prosecution against a mark. A multi-factor authentication system for gaining access to the records and documents on the Registry might lengthen the entire process in the short run. Nonetheless, the move could be game changer in the long run because it would allow the Registry to restrict access to confidential and personal data of its users to parties with an original or vested interest in the registration of a mark.
Such an approach would not only enable the Registry to provide open and efficient access to necessary documents to the parties who have an original or vested interest in the registration of a mark, but it would simultaneously vest it with the flexibility to protect the sensitive, confidential, as well as personal data of its users from scammers or non-interested parties.
A Privacy-by-Design approach is the future of the modern-day web, and as long as the Registry does not implement more elaborate internal safeguards on its website and databases to protect the privacy and integrity of public data contained therein, it is always recommended that applicants work with an experienced trademark attorney who can assist applicants in reducing the exposure of their information to individuals or a class of individuals with ulterior motives and mitigating the harm associated with the usage of their data.
The Trade Marks Registry (TMR) is a public filing system. That means once a trademark application is filed with the TMR, a lot of information is placed on record, including the applicant’s and its representative’s personal data, such as mailing address and the proof of use of the trademark.