Geographically descriptive marks

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The US Trademark Trial and Appeal Board has ruled than an application for registration of the mark “Montussan” can proceed because, although the mark is a geographic name, the name is of an “obscure location” in France, unknown to US consumers.

The applicant, Montussan Apéritifs, applied for registration of the mark “Montussan” as a US trade mark in respect of alcoholic beverages. Montussan is a small town in France, about 15 kilometres from Bordeaux and with around 3,000 inhabitants.

The application was initially rejected on the grounds that the mark was “geographically descriptive” of the goods in question. The examiner, in reaching his decision, cited extracts from websites like TripAdvisor, as well as Google searches, to show that the name was geographically descriptive. He also cited the town’s close proximity to Bordeaux, a town which was known to US consumers.

The applicant appealed successfully with the Appeal Board ruling that the sum total of the examiner’s evidence was that there was a town called Montussan in France, but that the evidence was silent as to the recognition of Montussan among US consumers. In the words of the Board, “the term Montussan does not convey a readily recognisable geographical significance to the average American consumer, but rather simply denotes the name of an obscure or remote geographic location”.

The case is interesting for showing that there are limits to the geographical descriptiveness ground for refusing an application – if the place name is of a small and obscure town, the application may still succeed.