Emily Xiang is an IPilogue Writer, a Senior Fellow with the IP Innovation Clinic, and a 3L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
What do a company in the business of mining and selling construction equipment, and an athletic-wear and sporting accessories brand, have in common? Apparently, the cat has been let out of the bag on this one. On January 10th, 2023, the Federal Court of Appeal released one of its first trademark decisions of the year in Puma SE v Caterpillar Inc., 2023 FCA 4.The Federal Court of Appeal held in favour of the construction machinery and equipment company over Puma’s use of the trademark PROCAT in association with footwear and headgear.
Puma first applied for the trademark PROCAT in 2012 for its sub-brand of youth sporting accessories. Caterpillar shortly opposed the application, asserting that, inter alia, the PROCAT mark was confusing with Caterpillar’s own CAT & Triangle Design [shown below]. Caterpillar’s CAT & Triangle Design was also registered in association with footwear and headgear. Specifically, the design was related to a line of work and sport footwear that the company had been operating in Canada since 1994. When the matter was brought before the Trademark Opposition Board, the hearing officer held that there was no reasonable likelihood of confusion between the marks. The officer explained that Caterpillar had failed to show that they possessed sufficient control over the character or quality of the goods sold in association with the CAT & Triangle Design through its licensees.
On appeal to the Federal Court, Caterpillar submitted new evidence in order to demonstrate requisite control and that it had accrued benefit from its licensees’ use of its marks. The court found the new evidence to be material. Moving on to the likelihood of confusion analysis, the court agreed with the hearing officer that the two marks were indeed similar in appearance and sound due to the word “CAT.” But the court also found Puma’s prefix “pro” to be suggestive or laudatory of the company’s goods. Therefore, the prefix was not enough to distinguish it from Caterpillar’s CAT. Puma had also submitted 13 other trademarks to evidence that the “CAT” element had little distinctiveness in the marketplace and should therefore be subject to a smaller ambit of protection. When elements appear over and over again in trade, some risk of confusion is generally acceptable in order to allow for fair competition. However, the court in this case found Puma’s evidence to be insufficient in demonstrating the state of the register. The Federal Court therefore overturned the decision of the hearing officer and found that there indeed would be a reasonable likelihood of confusion between the two CATs.
Unfortunately for the sporting brand, the court of appeal did not have much to say by way of correction either. In appealing the decision to the Federal Court of Appeal, Puma argued that the FC judge had erred in her findings. In Puma’s view, the FC judge had failed to consider each of the marks as a whole, and contended that it would be impossible for a consumer that was not “devoid of intelligence” to be confused as to the source of the two companies’ respectively marked goods. The sporting brand also tried to rely on its other cat-nominative trademarks, such as its better-known “jumping cat” design, as evidence of brand recognition, though this was still insufficient to sway the courts.
The Federal Court of Appeal was therefore unable to find any palpable or overriding error in the FC judge’s decision. For Puma, its lack of evidence with regards to its use of PROCAT in association with footwear and headgear beyond a trivial level proved detrimentally determinative. Ultimately, Puma’s evidence and arguments were not enough to go up against Caterpillar’s prior registration and surprisingly long-standing presence in the Canadian market.