“Does art matter?”. On 17 October 2019 , graffiti artist Banksy launched an online shop called Gross Domestic Product to sell his branded merchandise for two weeks, the launch being advertised by a pop-up shop in Croydon, UK. To have chance at purchasing an item, would-be Banksy merchandise owners had to register their interest and answer the above tie-breaker question. The sale of trademarked merchandise, an unprecedented move by Banksy, is better understood in the wider context of a dispute surrounding one of Banksy’s trade marks.
Banksy is the owner of several European trade marks, registered under the name of Pest Control Office Limited, a handling service acting on behalf of Banksy. The particular European trade mark at the centre of the dispute is European Trade Mark 012575155 which protects an image reminiscent of Banksy’s Rage, the Flower Thrower mural in Jerusalem, also known as Love Is In The Air, Flower Thrower or Flower Bomber. The Flower Thrower trade mark was filed in February 2014 and registered by August 2014.
In a statement posted on the pop-up store in Croydon, Banksy has explained the motivation behind the shop as follows:
“A greetings card company is contesting the trademark I hold to my art and attempting to take custody of my name so they can sell their fake Banksy merchandise legally”.
Full Colour Black, the greetings card producer in question, deny that they are trying to take custody of Banksy’s name, and have stated that the company previously approached Banksy’s representatives to pay them royalties, which Banksy refused
Subsequently, in March 2019, Full Colour Black filed an action for invalidity to cancel the Flower Thrower European trade mark. If the trade mark were successfully cancelled, Banksy would not be able to rely on his European trade mark to prevent use of the Flower thrower image commercially and Full Colour Black would be free to sell cards featuring the Flower Thrower without any risk of infringing the mark.
Of course, Banksy could rely on copyright to stop Full Colour Black or any other entities who are copying his art work. However, so far, Banksy has not enforced his copyright, the likely reasons for this being that to do so would require giving up his anonymity, and the requirement to file statements of use to enforce his copyright in the USA.
The essential function of a trade mark is to enable consumers to distinguish the goods or services of one undertaking from those of other undertakings. As the Flower Thrower image is reproduced widely on goods sold by different entities, Full Colour Black have argued that the image is not capable of being a trade mark. This is because it does not allow consumers to distinguish the goods originating from an undertaking under Banksy’s control and those originating from other companies. This is particularly true, as, prior to the launch of the shop in October 2019, no official Banksy merchandise existed. Furthermore, Full Colour Black argue that Banksy has registered the mark with no intention to genuinely use it, which amounts to bad faith, a further ground for invalidity.
It is unclear how selling trademarked merchandise is supposed to help Banksy’s case, as evidence of use has no effect in an invalidation action. The sale would be much more understandable if the action filed by Full Colour Black had been for revocation, as a trade mark can be revoked for non-use.
According to European trade mark law, a trade mark can be revoked, upon application to the European Union Intellectual Property Office,
“a) if, within a continuous period of five years, the trade mark has not been put to genuine use in the Union in connection with the goods or services in respect of which it is registered, and there are no proper reasons for non-use; […]”
In other words, as Banksy had not sold any goods to which the Flower Thrower trade mark was applied, and for which the trade mark was registered between August 2014 and August 2019, and there were no reasons preventing him from doing so, his Flower Thrower European trade mark became subject to revocation in August 2019 such that Full Colour Black could have applied for revocation from then on.
However, the law does also state that:
“no person may claim that the proprietor’s rights in an EU trade mark should be revoked where, during the interval between expiry of the five-year period and filing of the application or counterclaim, genuine use of the trade mark has been started or resumed; the commencement or resumption of use within a period of three months preceding the filing of the application or counterclaim which began at the earliest on expiry of the continuous period of five years of non-use shall, however, be disregarded where preparations for the commencement or resumption occur only after the proprietor becomes aware that the application or counterclaim may be filed;[…]”.
In short, the shop launch in October 2019 may have been an attempt by Banksy to pre-emptively invalidate any revocation action filed by Full Colour Black.
Such a revocation action would nevertheless remain admissible if Banksy only launched the shop after becoming aware of the possibility of a revocation action being filed against his trade mark and if such an action were filed within three months. Whether the sale of a few items for a limited period of time constituted genuine use of the mark is also an important question.
The current status on the European Union Intellectual Property Office register of Flower Thrower European trade mark 012575155 is “registration cancellation pending”, as the court determines the matter.
In a parallel move, Banksy’s legal team appear to have filed another representation of the Flower Thrower as a new European trade mark application in August 2019, European trade mark application 018118853. This new trade mark application is currently undergoing examination. If registered in due course, the sale of branded merchandise in October 2019 may well have been a move to demonstrate use of the image submitted in the newly-filed European trade mark application, rather than in response to the invalidation action. Of course, if the first Flower Thrower trade mark is invalidated (and therefore was never a valid registered trade mark), this may not bode well for the registration of the second Flower Thrower trade mark application, or indeed the registration of many other of Banksy’s image trade marks.
It will be interesting to see how this case develops further.
An important, practical conclusion for trade mark owners to draw from this case is to not wait five years before putting your trade mark to use. Otherwise, your trademark will become open to being revoked for non-use.
If you have not been using your mark in the last five years or more, the most advisable course of action in many cases would be to resume or start as soon as possible.
If in doubt, please do not hesitate to contact Albright IP for advice about your trade mark.