11 February 2014

The Protocol - Past, Present and Future

Trade mark professionals in the UK – and many in other countries – work with the Madrid Protocol on a daily basis. How different it once was.

The Madrid Protocol, with the UK among its first members, came into play on 1 April 1996. For most, this date is better known as the first day Community Trade Marks (CTMs) could be filed (or, more precisely, the earliest filing date CTM applications could be accorded). CTMs got filed by the bucket-load and have been popular from the start.

For the Madrid Protocol it was different, as many countries were slow on the uptake. This included those that were already members of the Madrid Agreement, which, until they were in the Protocol, were out of bounds for UK businesses.

Only a handful of Madrid Protocol applications were filed by UK companies in the early days. With the European Union (EU) easily covered by the new CTM, the majority were filed to designate China as most of the other members of commercial importance at this time were other EU member states. I can recall speaking to the UK Trade Marks Registry to check on the progress of an early application and being told: “We’ve only had three applications so far.” A recent check of ROMARIN shows a mere 11 active registrations originating from the UK registered between April and September 1996.

Over time some key countries have come aboard such as Australia, Japan, Korea, Russia, Singapore and the US as well as the EU itself. And, if it was not immediately popular, the advent of the Protocol proved a watershed moment in the Madrid system and the global registration of trade marks.

Early expansion

The Madrid Agreement had been operational since 1892, but primarily as a European continental club. Prior to 1948, the only non-European member was Morocco. The arrival of Vietnam, in 1949, marked the Agreement's expansion to Asia, although it would take another 40 years before it touched the Americas with the accession of Cuba.

With little prospect of further expansion in the same guise, particularly to common-law countries, the inflexibilities of the Madrid Agreement were ironed out in the Madrid Protocol and allowed the UK, US and others to come aboard. It has grown rapidly since.

This decade has seen a diverse expansion, both geographical and economical. There has been the accession of Colombia, India, Israel, Mexico, New Zealand, the Philippines, Rwanda and Tunisia. And Kazakhstan, Sudan and Tajikistan added the Protocol to their Agreement membership. Furthermore, the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles in 2010 created three new Madrid jurisdictions: Curaçao, Sint Maarten and Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba. Meanwhile, far removed from the sunny climes of the Caribbean, Denmark extended its Madrid Protocol membership to include Greenland.

Challenges, of course, remain. Is the requirement to have a home registration really needed these days? Direct filings with WIPO would make them operationally less cumbersome. The removal of the threat of “central attack” would bring less uncertainty to the table when using Madrid, and this is a concept less easily understood by owners of smaller trade mark portfolios.

WIPO suffers processing delays at the moment. Statements of grant were made mandatory, as many users were forthright on the importance of these. WIPO listened, but the increased numbers of these documents put them under pressure.

They should have little problem in coaxing civil servants from Member States to a tax-free salary in Switzerland should it need more staff. Although my criticism of WIPO’s recruitment would be that Government experience seems to be a prerequisite for employment, when professionals from industry or private practice could add a different perspective.

I must give praise where it is due, though, and the set-up of three dedicated teams of examiners at WIPO has left the organisation less faceless. Incidentally, Madrid Team 1 (madrid.team1@wipo.int (+41) 22 338 750 1) looks after applications originating through OHIM, and Madrid Team 3 (madrid.team3@wipo.int (+41) 22 338 750 3) is responsible when the UK is the Office of origin.

The development of on-line tools should also be welcomed and will improve operations.

US issues

The onerous maintenance requirements for US designations still present a problem. In the first term of registration there are likely to be three maintenance events, namely two Affidavits due (to the US Patent and Trademark Office) and one renewal due (to WIPO). The high number of Provisional Refusals in the US may have meant there were no cost savings in the original Madrid filing, but even if there were (for there being no need to engage US Counsel), the maintenance requirements for US Madrid Protocol designations are, at best, no cheaper than they would be for a national registration. It’s easy to see why some argue that the US has taken all the benefits of the Madrid Protocol for its own businesses, but is barely extending this back to other users of Madrid. A similar situation arises for designations of the Philippines.

Common-law countries, mostly in Africa, pose another problem when they have not amended their local legislation to reflect their Madrid membership. WIPO can seem oblivious to this, thinking once they have a member signed up, it is “job done”, but ultimately if you could not enforce an International Registration in, for example, Zambia, isn’t that country's membership worthless?

As for the future, it is easiest to speculate on the new joiners. Remaining in Africa, Zimbabwe has made legislative steps to ready itself for membership, but, as we saw with India, this does not necessarily mean they will be depositing their instrument of accession immediately. Being the home of the African Regional Intellectual Property Organization (ARIPO), Zimbabwe could play an important role on the continent and help in finding a way of linking ARIPO’s Banjul Protocol with the Madrid Protocol.

Malta, currently the only EU member not to have Madrid membership, could complete the EU jigsaw. We may also anticipate Algeria – the sole remaining member of the Madrid Agreement only – to accede to the Protocol, too. This may put to bed the Madrid Agreement and abolish Article 9sexies. This provision allows applications from member states of both the Madrid Agreement and Madrid Protocol to pay complementary and supplementary fees (rather than individual fees) when designating members that are also party to the Madrid Agreement and Madrid Protocol. They also get the advantage of a 12-month examination period. Those from Madrid Protocol-only countries, including the UK, can claim this is unfair.

The ASEAN states are scheduled to join the Madrid Protocol by 2015. Thailand is expected to come aboard soon, joining the existing members in ASEAN: the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. Malaysia has made legislative amendments to prepare for Madrid. For the other ASEAN states (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Myanmar) this timetable may be less realistic, although we may expect Brunei or Indonesia to make strides in this time, and new legislation is imminently anticipated in Myanmar.

The same is true with CAFTA-DR countries whose free trade agreement with the US stipulates Madrid Protocol membership. Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua are the members, with Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic considered the most likely to join up first.

Pockets of resistance

Of some of the major markets currently outside of the Madrid family, resistance is strong in Canada, where local practitioners have lobbied their Government hard not to join.

Brazil and South Africa present some more positive vibes, although both realise they need to reduce examination backlogs to be able to cope with an influx of Madrid applications. They are making inroads into these backlogs, although not at the same rate as India.

Brazil faces another challenge because the local law stipulates Portuguese as the official language for all correspondence. This could be amended, but a change could present a linguistic burden on the local trade mark office. It is possible that Portuguese could become an official Madrid language – WIPO already provides some information in this language. However, there may be a reluctance to do this unless some dispensation can be reached that keeps a handle on translation costs (for example, only International Registrations designating Brazil are translated into Portuguese).

WIPO may also be wary. In 2004, Spanish was made an official language, but it has not been until the last year that Colombia and Mexico joined the Madrid club (Spanish-speaking Cuba and Spain were already members before 2004).

Making Portuguese an official language would be almost purely to lure in Brazil. Other Lusophone nations, such as Angola, Cape Verde and Timor-Leste, are not of commercial interest to as many businesses as Brazil (and Mozambique, Portugal and São Tomé and Príncipe are already a part of Madrid). Further, to digress somewhat, Portuguese could only be currently available as a first language for designations of the European Community and not (as is the case with English, French and Spanish) as a second language.

Some of the quirky mechanisms of the Madrid Protocol will continue to baffle some people and there are skills required to work with it, but it is clear that the Madrid Protocol is here to stay and will become increasingly prominent in the field of trade marks in years to come. It may get replaced with a new system in due course, but political wranglings may mean it is easier to amend the existing system than to start from scratch.

This article originally appeared in Issue 406 December 2013/January 2014 of ITMA Review, the journal of the Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys.