Sunday, February 19, 2012

Of Markets, Exhaustion and Trade Marks..

A recent Delhi High Court decision, has left me rather perplexed! The decision rendered in Samsung Electronics Company ... vs Kapil Wadhwa & Ors, deals in exhaustion of rights vis-à-vis trade marks, and an associated claim of infringement. 

The decision leaves me taken aback for the interpretation that it takes on the legislation, albeit attempting to justify its stand, under the layers of dicta that guide legislative interpretation, and drawing international comparatives- both of which are, in my humble opinion, unnecissitated.

To summarize the 156 page long decision, the allegations made by Samasung, upon the defendants were that by way of parallel importation and lack of consent or authorization, the defendants sold the products, thus committing infringement as envisaged under the Trade Marks Act. 

Also by way of deep hyperlinking and meta-tagging, they had committed infringement and mislead consumers to believe the source of products to be Samsung itself. The court while determining infringement, states that the law of Trade Marks in India, follows the scheme of National Exhaustion of rights, which I am in vehement disagreement with.

For the benefit of our readers, the operative part of the provision governing exhaustion of rights is reproduced here:

30. Limits on effect of registered trade mark.—
3) Where the goods bearing a registered trade mark are lawfully acquired by a person, the sale of the goods in the market or otherwise dealing in those goods by that person or by a person claiming under or through him is not infringement of a trade by reason only of—
(a) the registered trade mark having been assigned by the registered proprietor to some other person, after the acquisition of those goods; or
(b) the goods having been put on the market under the registered trade mark by the proprietor or with his consent.

In discussing whether the mark has in fact been infringed, and whether the provision acts as a defence (or “limit”, in statutory language), the Judge looked at the use of the term “market” in its different forms – viz. “in the market” in the body of the provision, while “on the market”. The use of prepositions, 'in' and 'on' are construed as below:

“[O]nce the situation becomes clear about the import of the opening words of the section, then the said lawful acquisition due to the controlling words registered trademark must originate from the domestic market/ national market, and the subsequent wordings has to be also given contextual reading and the wider import of the same words "in the market" cannot be given to include "worldwide market"…

However, this makes little sense to me. The provision describing “use of a trademark”, under S. 29(6)(c) clearly qualifies “imports or exports goods under the mark”.

As a fall out, how can the term “in the market” or “on the market” be construed as being the domestic market? “Import” as we all understand means bringing “into one’s country” (I deliberately choose not to use the term market here, because, the two need not necessarily coexist!)

Another reason I refute this interpretation is the way the law of trade marks is designed to operate. While the law may be to grant territorial rights, it does not deny rights to register or apply for registrations to corporations outside India. One can appoint an Indian agent and have a body incorporated in a foreign location to apply for the mark. If “in the market” were to be construed strictly, as deliberated by the learned judge, then every applicant would have to furnish an address and accompanying proof of residency in India.

Additionally, as many of us would have encountered in our practice, one of the most concrete and reliable proofs of use,are invoices and bills of lading, to prove “use in India”. In this view, if exhaustion is only meant to be national, have we been wrong so far, as to advice registrants to maintain records of their voluminous shipping documents? If exhaustion of a trade mark was only meant to be “national”, then we would only have invoices from distributors or local subsidiaries.

To further attempt bolster as to why a trademark may originate from a registrant, having presence in India vide imports, is the fact that we have recognized the principle of “well-known trade marks” and accompanying secondary significance way too well in our jurisprudence. If law were to interpreted absolutely in a territorial structure, then what we are ALSO indirectly saying is that the opening up of our economy, as executed by the present Indian Prime Minister, (during his term as a Finance Minister in the 1990s), was superfluous!

Further in the judgement, the Learned Judge also reasons that :

“This is due to the reason that the word "market" is not qualified by any other word either in clause (3) or sub clause (b). It is just mentioned "in the market" and "on the market". Had there been a separate meaning ascribed to the word "market" in sub clause (3) and in (b), then there must have been a qualification before or after the word "market" in both the provisions which is not so present.”

I do not think the word market needs to be defined or qualified by another term, so as to monitor trade mark. The law of Trade Marks is for the consumers, who very clearly define the market - so long as demand for a product or brand exists, the market does. 

The Trade Marks Act, 1999 also carefully omits defining this term- for reasons beyond the obvious. “Likelihood of confusion” is also deciphered on this very basis constituting of trade channels, class of consumers, price disparities and the akin- something that you and I as the commoner would consider during our shopping escapades.

All in all, I think this judgment clearly misreads the law. I shall revisit the judgment soon for a fresh take. In the meanwhile, I hope that we will hear from our readers on what they think of this ruling.

P.S. Thank you to a dear friend of the blog, for pointing this decision to me.


  1. I wanted to see how this corelates with the US Sup Ct decision in Omega/ Costco:

    "a dear friend of the blog"

    1. Hahaha! indeed 156 pages to approx 1.5 lines!