The European Court of Justice (see judgment in Case C-48/09 Lego Juris v OHIM) finds that the main purpose of the prohibition on registration as a trademark of any sign consisting of the shape of goods which is necessary to obtain a technical result is to prevent trademark law granting an undertaking a monopoly on technical solutions or functional characteristics of a product. Thus, undertakings may not use trademark law in order to perpetuate, indefinitely, exclusive rights relating to technical solutions.
When the shape of a product merely incorporates the technical solution developed by the manufacturer of that product and patented by it, protection of that shape as a trademark once the patent has expired would considerably reduce the opportunity for other undertakings to use that technical solution. In accordance with the law of the European Union, technical solutions are capable of protection only for a limited period, so that subsequently they may be freely used by all economic operators.
In addition, the Court finds that by restricting the prohibition on registration to signs which consist “exclusively” of the shape of goods which is “necessary” to obtain a technical result the legislature duly took into account that any shape of goods is, to a certain extent, functional and that it would therefore be inappropriate to refuse to register a shape of goods as a trademark solely on the ground that it has functional characteristics. By the terms “exclusively” and “necessary”, the legislature sought to ensure that solely shapes of goods which only incorporate a technical solution, and whose registration as a trademark would actually impede the use of that technical solution by other undertakings, are not to be registered.
As regards the fact that the ground for refusal covers any sign consisting “exclusively” of the shape of goods which is necessary to obtain a technical result, the Court finds that that condition is fulfilled when, as in the present case, all the essential characteristics of a shape perform a technical function, the presence of one or more minor arbitrary elements with no technical function being irrelevant in that context.
The Court also finds that the position of an undertaking which has developed a technical solution cannot be protected – with regard to competitors placing on the market slavish copies of the product shape incorporating exactly the same solution – by conferring a monopoly on that undertaking through registering as a trademark the three-dimensional sign consisting of that shape, but can, where appropriate, be examined in the light of the rules on unfair competition.