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It is no surprise that in France, its ‘own’ car manufacturers are most popular. Renault, Peugeot and Citroën hold the first, second and third positions for most cars sold in France.
Each of these trademarks have their own rich history, and the French are properly proud of it. Citroën’s cars are still widely reputed for its iconic models such as the Traction, 2CV, DS and SM. With headlights which swivel with the steering, hydropneumatic suspension, futuristic instrument panels, it is no wonder that the brand attracts enthusiasts from all around the world. Citroën describes its products as: “creativity, technology and boldness”.
Citroën is also bold when it comes to the protection of their trademark. In 2018, Citroën filed a request with the EU trademark office, EUIPO, to invalidate the logo of Polestar, a manufacturer of electric vehicles, alleging it would be too similar to Citroën’s logo. Citroën invoked the following two trademarks, and their claim was directed against two registered Polestar logos:
It takes some effort to understand Citroën’s concern: the two arrows of the Citroën logo, known as the ‘double chevron’, are reflected opposite each other in the Polestar logo. However, following settled case law of the European Court of Justice, when comparing two trademarks, the main focus should lie on the global appreciation of the similarity of the trademarks, based on their overall impression. As it turns out, not everyone agrees on whether or not there is a case of trademark infringement.
The EUIPO decided in early 2020, in the procedure that Citroën started, that the overall impressions created by the trademarks are dissimilar. Amongst others, the EUIPO pointed out that in Citroën’s logo the chevrons are vertically aligned, while in Polestar’s logo they are placed in a diagonal position and are inverted. Citroën also claimed that its logo enjoys an enhanced distinctiveness due to its reputation, but the EUIPO declared that the dissimilarity of the trademarks cannot be overcome by a highly distinctive character. Citroën filed an appeal against this decision, which is still pending.
In its home country, contrary to the EUIPO decision, Citroën was successful. Citroën filed an infringement procedure against Polestar, and the French court upheld its claim.
The French court referred to the same case law as the EUIPO, but also pointed out that a low level of similarity can be compensated by the reputation of a trademark and the similarity of the goods involved. In the present case, both trademarks focus on vehicles, which makes the goods not merely similar, but fully identical. Next to this, the court confirmed that the Citroën logo enjoys an enhanced level of distinctiveness, and is linked to the history and culture of France. The court even referred to the fact that all Presidents of the Republic chose Citroën’s high-end vehicles, ever since René Coty in 1955.
The court confirmed that the logos under comparison are only visually similar to a low degree. They further stated that the relevant public, when it comes to the purchase of something as expensive as a car, has a high level of attention. Following settled case law, this should enable them to notice differences between trademarks more easily. Polestar’s defence that its logo resembles the image of a polestar was also taken into consideration.
However, the French court decided that the invoked logo concerned a well-known trademark, and that is what makes the difference in this case. Well-known trademarks can act against similar trademarks if the use thereof takes unfair advantage, or is detrimental, to the distinctive character or reputation of the earlier trademark. It is not necessarily required that actual confusion among the public takes place, it may be sufficient that the public merely makes a connection.