STRICTER TRADE MARK RULES FOR DAIRY PRODUCTS

On 28 March 2016, the new Regulations relating to the Classification, Packing and Marking of Dairy Products and Imitation Dairy Products Intended for Sale in the Republic of South Africa (“the Regulations“) came into effect. The Regulations were issued by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (“DAFF”), and repeal the previous Dairy Products and Imitation Dairy Products Regulations. The Regulations bring about a number of changes in the classification and marking of dairy products and imitation dairy products that are sold in South Africa, and industry members have had to review their product packaging, to ensure that the packaging complies with the new requirements.

From a trade mark perspective, one of the changes brought about by the Regulations relates to the allowable letter size of certain elements on the container of a product, in proportion to the class designation that appears on the product pack (the “class designation” refers to the type of product, for example “Low Fat Milk”, “Unsalted butter”, “Full fat cheese spread”, etc). Regulation 25(7)(a) provides that no word or expression that appears on the container of a dairy or imitation dairy product may be bigger than the letter size of the class designation that appears on the main (or front) panel of that product, unless it is a registered trade mark or trade name. This provision is stricter than the previous corresponding provision of the repealed Dairy Products and Imitation Dairy Products Regulations, which allowed for both registered and unregistered trade marks to be displayed on pack in a letter size bigger than the letter size of the class designation.

Against this background, in terms of Regulation 25(7)(a), the only words that are allowed to be displayed bigger than the class designation on pack, are registered trade marks. Other elements that are not registered trade marks, for example descriptive words (such as “Chocolate flavoured”, “1 litre”, or “Shake well”) and unregistered trade marks, must be displayed in a letter size that is smaller than, or equal to, the letter size of the class designation.

The packaging of some products on the market currently indicate unregistered trade mark elements in a letter size that is bigger than the letter size of the class designation of the specific product on pack. In the circumstances, and in order to comply with Regulation 25(7)(a), industry members affected by this provision are required to amend non-conforming product packaging to be in line with Regulation 25(7)(a), by appropriately reducing the letter size of those elements on pack.

An alternative approach would be to obtain registered trade mark rights in the package elements that are affected by Regulations 25(7)(a), where appropriate. Although some manufacturers may prefer this option, in order to allow their product packaging to remain unchanged, this route it is not without its difficulties, and may not be a suitable approach in all instances, as discussed below.

In terms of the Trade Marks Act of 1993, in order to be registrable, a trade mark must be capable of distinguishing the goods of a person, in relation to which it is registered or proposed to be registered, from the same goods of others in the trade (i.e. that mark must not be descriptive of the goods in relation to which it is used or proposed to be used, and for which registration is sought). It follows, therefore, that dairy product manufacturers will not be able to obtain registered trade mark protection for wholly descriptive elements that appear on pack. Consequently, those elements must be displayed in a letter size that is smaller than, or equal to, the letter size of the product class designation on the main panel of the pack, in order to comply with Regulation 25(7)(a).

Another issue, assuming that a certain product package element that is affected by Regulation 25(7)(a) is capable of registration in terms of the Trade Marks Act, is the fact that it takes, on average, about two to three years to obtain registered trade mark protection for a trade mark, from the date of filing a trade mark application with the Trade Marks Registry. Many dairy product manufacturers who have started aligning their product packaging to be in line with the Regulations, by filing trade mark applications for relevant unregistered trade mark elements that are affected by Regulation 25(7)(a), are still waiting for the Trade Marks Registry to examine those trade mark applications for registrability. Consequently, for many businesses in the industry, compliance with Regulation 25(7)(a) at this stage poses practical difficulties, as a result of the delays at the Trade Marks Registry.

Against this background, and in order to accommodate the industry, DAFF has issued a dispensation in respect of Regulation 25(7)(a). In essence, the dispensation provides that the letter size of trade marks that are still in the process of registration and that have not yet proceeded to registration (i.e. marks that are the subject of pending trade mark applications) may be displayed on pack in a letter size bigger than the letter size of the class designation that appears on the main panel of the product, provided that:

  • in the case of products that are already on the market, it can be shown that an application to register the trade mark was filed prior to 28 March 2016, and that the trade mark does not contravene any other provision ofthe Regulations; and
  • in the case of new products to be launched in the trade, an application to register the trade mark was filed prior to the launch of the product and that the trade mark does not contravene any other provision of the Regulations.

The dispensation also stipulates that, in the event that a trade mark application is unsuccessful (i.e. the Registrar of Trade Marks is unwilling to register the relevant mark as a trade mark), the label of the product must be amended to be in accordance with the Regulations (and, specifically, Regulation 25(7)(a)), as soon as possible. The effect would, therefore, be that the relevant product label would have to be amended to make the relevant unregistrable element the same size as, or smaller than, the letter size of the class designation that appears on the main panel of the product.

It should be noted that the dispensation is not absolute. DAFF may withdraw permission, in terms of the dispensation, to use a trade mark which is the subject of a pending application in a letter size bigger than that of the class designation on pack, should it receive a valid complaint which justifies the withdrawal of such permission. Furthermore, the dispensation will be in force for a limited period only, and will terminate when the next amendment to the Regulations is published in the Government Gazette. This date is uncertain, and the period that the dispensation will be applicable is, therefore, also uncertain.

by Jeanette Visagie | Associate

[Verified by Jenny Pienaar | Partner]

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