Audiovisual works: the protection of program titles by trademark law

Companies which specialise in the audiovisual sector often require protection for their program titles through trademark law. If granted, this protection obviously offers considerable advantages for the company, but it is necessary to take into consideration some limits to it.


  • The advantages of trademark protection

First, the term of protection of a title by trademark law. Trademark law initially grants protection for 10 years, but this term is renewable indefinitely (Art L712-1 CPI). Thus, provided the owner submits a renewal application within the time limit, the trademark can be protected indefinitely. Copyright, on the other hand, can grant protection up to 70 years after the death of the author of the work, but the ‘guarantees’ of protection may be less obvious than trademark law because there is no register of copyright.

On the other hand, while copyright imposes a condition of originality (Art.L711-2 CPI), trademark law requires a distinctive character (Art L711-2 CPI). Thus, if the title of TV show or audiovisual program is distinctive and acts as an indicator of origin, it may be protected. In contrast, for copyright, it is necessary to prove originality, which is more difficult to prove. Since copyright is not subject to registration, the condition of originality must always be demonstrated in the course of a dispute. Thus, copyright protection is never certain.


A title may be protected by trademark law if it does not directly designate the goods and services for which registration is sought. Thus, if the title is arbitrary, there is nothing to prevent the title from benefiting from this protection. Finally, it should be borne in mind that trademark protection is not an impediment to copyright protection; it is thus possible to combine both protections.


  • The limits of trademark protection


Some limitations to the protection of audiovisual programs’ titles by trademark law should nevertheless be noted. The protection conferred by trademark law grants a monopoly on the use of the registered terms (Art L-713-1 CPI) and therefore the right to oppose use by third parties. However, in order to do so, it is necessary to prove :


  • The use of the sign by a third party “as a trademark”


First, it must be proven that the use of the title by a third party was “as a trademark”. To illustrate this concept, we can refer to the judgment rendered about the series “Le Bureau des Légendes”. In this case, the Paris Court of First Instance (TGI) dismissed the infringement action brought against a book, using the title, devoted to the study of the series. The purpose here was not to offer goods and services designated in the registration, but simply to refer to the series as such (TGI Paris, réf., April 16, 2018, n°18/53176). Use as a trademark would have been in the context of the sale of derivative products in connection with the series.


  • A commercial use of the sign


Secondly, in order to oppose the use of a sign, the owner must provide proof of commercial use. This means that it is not sufficient to prove merely a reference to the title. The use must take place in the course of business and not only for illustrative purposes. There must be a genuine commercial link between the sign and the use made by a third party.


  • A risk of confusion in the mind of the public


Finally, the risk of confusion in the public mind must be shown. The use of the sign must raise doubts as to the origin of the goods and services offered. A trademark is intended to guarantee in particular the origin of the goods and service. Thus, the use of the sign by a third party must infringe this guarantee of origin, severing the direct link between the sign and its owner.


For instance, the judges considered that there was no likelihood of confusion between Canal+’s trademark “LE ZAPPING” and the trademark “LE Z#PPING DE LA TELE”. In view of the evidence provided, and the overall impression, there was no likelihood of confusion. The phonetic and visual differences of the two signs were sufficient to eliminate this risk (CA Versailles, 12th ch., July 3, 2018, n°18/02091).


However, the principle of speciality of the trademark may be used against  the owner of a trademark. Since a trademark is registered for specific categories of goods or services, the owner can only oppose the use of the sign for identical or similar goods or services. Thus, if a sign is used for a completely different area of activities, the owner will not be able to oppose this use of the sign. This was the case for Canal +, concerning its mark “LE ZAPPING”. The notoriety of this brand was certainly recognized by the Court, but only in the field of television broadcasts. Thus, it was not possible for Canal + to oppose the filing of a similar trademark for other categories of goods and services than those designated in registration of the trademark “LE ZAPPING”.


  • Conclusion


Trademark law grants additional protection to a title of an audiovisual program. It complements the protection that copyright can grant, in a more certain way through the requirement of registration. The point of filing a sign representing the title of an audiovisual work is therefore to acquire double protection, on both grounds. Admittedly, the conditions to be met in order to be able to bring an infringement action under trademark law may be difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, trademark law offers more means of action, and therefore of compensation for damage in the event of unjustified use by third parties.

Dreyfus law firm, expert in trademark law, will assist you in the management of your trademark portfolio.