EU court: No, expat Frenchman can't trademark France.com

Judgment is latest blow against US citizen over travel agency's disputed domain

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Pic: Shutterstock

An EU court has tried to forestall ongoing US legal proceedings by declaring that an expat Frenchman can’t trademark a logo containing the domain name France.com.

The EU General Court, a division of the EU Court of Justice, ruled today that Jean-Noel Frydman’s company France.com Inc was not entitled to register the domain name France-dot-com as a trademark, paving the way for the Republic to renew its claim that it legally owns the web address.

France-dot-com's formerly trademarked logo

France-dot-com's formerly trademarked logo

It ruled that a logo owned by France.com Inc, which included the words “France.com”, was likely to be confused with the Republic’s own tourism agency’s logo. The EU court therefore threw out the firm’s appeal against an earlier ruling of the EU Intellectual Property Office stripping it of that trademark.

“It can be assumed that many consumers will refer to the mark applied for by the word ‘france’ alone, as the abbreviation ‘.com’ will be perceived as referring to a website,” ruled the EU judges today.

The French state's own France logo

The French state's own France logo

They spelled it out by saying in their judgment: “As they refer to the same concept, represented by the word element ‘france’ and the figurative element depicting the Eiffel tower, that is to say, France, the signs at issue are conceptually identical, and the element ‘.com’, present only in the mark applied for, is not sufficient to enable those signs to be differentiated conceptually.”

As the signs at issue are almost identical phonetically and conceptually because they have the same structure, with the same word, ‘france’, the same figurative element, the Eiffel tower, and the same colours, blue, white and red, a likelihood of confusion within the meaning of Article 8(1)(b) of Regulation No 207/2009 could not be ruled out.

France-dot-com (the domain name) was registered by Frydman in 1999 and he later assigned it to France.com Inc. He worked closely with the French Republic’s own tourism authorities, even winning awards from them in the early part of this decade. The two later fell out, however, with Frydman claiming that the French state is now trying to “expropriate” (a posh word for “steal but legally”) the domain name. Those allegations were made by Frydman in a US court earlier this year, in which it also emerged that France-dot-com is ranked higher in search results than the Fifth Republic’s state-owned tourism agency’s own web presences.

“Those signs have only a low degree of similarity, or are even not similar at all, from a phonetic standpoint,” the EU court summarised France.com Inc’s lawyers as arguing, adding that they said: “What is more, it is irrelevant that the two marks share the word ‘france’, as that word is, according to the applicant, in the public domain.”

Although France’s legal eagles tried producing a Paris court’s judgment that (quelle surprise) ruled in their favour and ordered France.com Inc to give the French Republic all of its trademarks without recompense, the EU court labelled that decision “irrelevant to the present dispute”.

The practical effect of today’s judgment appears to be the destruction of Frydman’s intellectual property, in effect upholding that Parisian court’s judgment by depriving him of one of the legal protections for the business he built around the domain name.

The US case is still ongoing, with the domain having been under the de facto control of the French state since 2015.

Three judges made today’s EU ruling, which was decided from written submissions without a hearing. They were Antony Collins from Ireland, Rene Barents of the Netherlands and Jan Passer of the Czech Republic. The full judgment can be found on the EU General Court’s website. ®

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