Enacted in 1994, the “Toubon” Act is one of the most famous laws in France. It requires companies to translate in French their slogans, particulars or information displayed on all media meant for the public. The major exception to this rule is the right to a trademark, since trademarks in foreign language need not be translated.
The Toubon Act attracted the attention of the Office québécois de la langue française. Back in 2012, that office drafted a Charter for retailers to use the French language and launched a publicised campaign promoting the use of the French language on storefronts.
Akin to the Toubon Act, the Charter provides for a trademark exception. Yet the office opposes it. It is of the view that storefront signage are rather considered by the public to be business names rather than trademarks. According to the office, commercial signage should therefore be translated into French. There is thus a clear conflict between what the law says and the interpretation made by the Québécois office.
It is in this context that eight retailers lodged a case before the Québec Superior Court asking to rule on the interpretation of the Charter. The question posed to the Court was clear: either the sign is a recognised trademark within the meaning of the Canadian Trademarks Act and the exception should apply; or it is not and it should therefore be translated in French.
In a declaratory judgment of April 9, 2014, the judges of the Québec Superior Court opined that “a trademark forms part of a legal concept that is governed by its own rules and differs significantly from that of a trade name or business name”.
The judge therefore applied the law stricto sensu and held that trademarks displayed on storefronts needed not be translated.
It is a fact that Québec traditionally holds particular importance to the French language; however, this decision is important since it denotes that tradition must not override the law.