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The affixing of figurative signs is found to be an unlawful evocation of a protected designation of origin

May 23, 2019

In its designation of origin In its decision of 2 May 2019, the Court of Justice of the European Union has clarified the scope of protection of a PDO by holding that the representation of figurative elements could constitute an unlawful evocation within the meaning of European regulations.

A protected designation of origin (PDO) is a geographical name intended to guarantee the consumer that the product has certain characteristics and qualities attached to its origin, including natural and human factors. This means, in particular, that a PDO may not be evoked or affixed on products that do not satisfy the characteristics provided for in the specifications applicable to each designation.

Recently, the Spanish Supreme Court referred a preliminary question to the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) on the scope of this prohibition: does the unlawful evocation of a PDO concern only the word name as such or also the figurative signs (such as drawings or logos) calling to mind that PDO?

In the case at hand, the Foundation responsible for managing and protecting the PDO “queso manchego” (a cheese from La Mancha region of Spain) brought an action against the depiction of landscapes of La Mancha and of images typical of that region (mills) on the labels of cheeses not protected by that PDO.

The Foundation considered that such a depiction constituted an unlawful evocation of the PDO. In the proceedings, the claim was denied in first instance and then again on appeal, on the ground that the images in question evoked, at most, the La Mancha region but not at all the PDO itself. The Spanish Supreme Court, to which the case was then brought, decided to stay the proceedings and seek clarification from the CJEU on the scope of protection of a PDO.

The CJEU has confirmed, first, that the affixing of figurative signs constitutes the evocation of a registered geographic name insofar as the signs may “trigger directly in the consumer’s mind the image of products whose name is registered on account of their conceptual proximity to such a name.”

Secondly, the Court held that “the use of figurative signs evoking the geographical area with which a designation of origin is associated may constitute evocation of that designation.” The Court added that such a use by a producer of the region on products similar to those protected by the designation of origin, but not covered by it, may be considered unlawful.

Lastly, the Court pointed out that the objective of a “clear, succinct and credible information regarding the origin of the product” is better guaranteed if the registered name is protected from any type of evocation, including figurative signs.

Based on this answer to its preliminary question, the Spanish Supreme Court will thus have to decide whether the image of landscapes affixed on the labels of the products at issue may or may not, in the mind of the consumer, create a conceptual proximity with the “queso manchego” PDO.

The CJEU’s answer considerably expands the scope of protection of PDOs. Going forward, whenever an image calls to mind a protected name, that image may be considered as an unlawful evocation within the meaning of EU regulations.

*Court of Justice of the European Union, 2 May 2019, C 614/17, EU:C:2019:344, Fundación Consejo Regulador de la Denominación Protegida Queso Manchego v. Industrial Quesera Cuquerella SL and Juan Ramón Cuquerella Montagud.

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