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The Lack of Inherent Distinctiveness Examination Criterion: A Year Later

Trademark distinctiveness is an examination criterion that was introduced to Canadian trademarks law on June 17, 2019, the day on which amendments to the Trademarks Act[1] came into force. Since June 17, 2019, the Registrar has the authority under paragraph 37(1)(d) of the Trademarks Act to refuse registration of a trademark if he is satisfied that “the trademark is not distinctive”.

Paragraph 32(1)(b) of the Trademarks Act allows the Registrar to raise an objection to an application on the basis that a trademark is not inherently distinctive, stating as follows:

An applicant shall furnish the Registrar with any evidence that the Registrar may require establishing that the trademark is distinctive at the filing date of the application for its registration if … the Registrar’s preliminary view is that the trademark is not inherently distinctive.

“Distinctive” is defined under section 2 of the Trademarks Act as “a trademark that actually distinguishes the goods or services in association with which it is used by its owner from the goods or services of others or that is adapted so to distinguish them”.

Section 4.9 of the Canadian Intellectual Property Office (“CIPO”)’s Trademarks Examination Manual provides some guidance as to when a CIPO examiner would object to a trademark as lacking inherent distinctiveness under paragraphs 32(1)(b) and 37(1)(d). According to the Examination Manual, in assessing whether a trademark is inherently distinctive, a CIPO examiner must answer two questions from the perspective of the average Canadian consumer:

  1. Should other traders be able, in the ordinary course of business, to use the same mark with the same goods or services?
  2. Is there use of the mark in Canada by others in the trade such that the public would not respond to the mark as identifying one source?

The Examination Manual provides examples of trademarks which the CIPO would generally consider to have no inherent distinctiveness, including[2]:

  • Trademarks that serve only to provide general information about or on any goods or services.
  • Trademarks which are clearly descriptive or deceptively misdescriptive of their associated goods and/or services in English or French under paragraph 12(1)(b) of the Trademarks Act.
  • Trademarks which are primarily merely the name or surname of an individual who is living or who has died within the preceding thirty years under paragraph 12(1)(a) of the Trademarks Act.
  • Trademarks which are primarily geographic locations.
  • A trademark that consists of a design common to the trade, unless it is depicted in a special or fanciful manner.
  • A trademark that is a word for a colour in relation to goods that would ordinarily or typically be that colour.
  • Single letter or number trademarks.
  • Trademarks consisting of laudatory words and phrases.
  • A trademark that consists of a numerical phone number.

As per the CIPO examination guidelines, there is no need for an examiner to show that the same trademark is currently being used in the marketplace in order to raise a lack of inherent distinctiveness objection; the examiner only needs to have some basis to believe that other traders would likely use the same trademark in the marketplace. In view of the CIPO’s examination guidelines, CIPO examiners are certainly given broad latitude to raise a lack of inherent distinctiveness objection. Not surprisingly, many lack of inherent distinctiveness objections have been raised by CIPO examiners since June 17, 2019.

Under paragraph 32(1)(b), an applicant that is faced with a lack of inherent distinctiveness objection may try to overcome the objection by furnishing evidence, in the form of an affidavit or a statutory declaration, to establish that the trademark had acquired distinctiveness in Canada at the filing date of the application. However, many trademark applications are filed before or shortly after commencing use of the trademark in the Canadian marketplace. Clearly, such applicants could not take advantage of the paragraph 32(1)(b) saving provision. Further, when claiming that the trademark has acquired distinctiveness in Canada at the filing date, the applicant must show that the trademark has achieved secondary meaning across Canada. If the applicant’s evidence only shows that the mark has become distinctive in some, but not all, areas of Canada, the Registrar can restrict the registration to the goods or services in association with which, and to the defined territorial area in Canada in which, the trademark is shown to be distinctive[3].

If evidence to establish distinctiveness at the filing date of the application is not available, the applicant’s best option (rather than simply abandoning the application) would be to argue against the lack of inherent distinctiveness objection.

The Examination Manual specifies that “the phrase ‘not inherently distinctive’ in paragraph 32(1)(b) refers to a trademark having ’no inherent distinctiveness‘ (not registrable) as opposed to a trademark possessing a ‘low degree of inherent distinctiveness’ (registrable).”[4] In other words, a trademark needs only to possess some inherent distinctiveness, even a low degree, to be registrable.

In the context of determining confusion between two marks, the Trademarks Opposition Board has held that the following trademarks possess little inherent distinctiveness:

  • INSTACRADLE for use in association with goods which include “instant, or readily installable, floor cradles”: InstaFibre Ltd. v Q.E.P. Co., Inc., 2019 TMOB 146 at paragraph 34.
  • CAMPING WORLD for use in association with services which include “the sale and service of RVs and related accessories which are used for camping”: CWI, Inc. v G N R Travel Centre Ltd., 2020 TMOB 113 at paragraph 48.
  • SMARTCLOUD for use in association with services which include “cloud computing services”: Smart Cloud Inc. v International Business Machines Corporation, 2019 TMOB 78 at paragraph 84.
  • ELEVATED EATS for use in association with goods which include “fresh flowers, fresh vegetables and fresh fruits”: PROsnack Natural Foods Inc. v Frank Ferragine, 2020 TMOB 147 at paragraph 23.
  • GLUCOWISE for use in association with goods which include “nutritional and dietary supplements for regulating blood glucose levels”: Jamieson Laboratories Ltd. v Omega Alpha Pharmaceuticals Inc., 2020 TMOB 30 at paragraph 51.

To emphasize, the Trademarks Opposition Board merely commented that each of the above trademarks possess little inherent distinctiveness (which is registrable), and is not without any inherent distinctiveness. Guided by these Opposition Board decisions, trademarks that are at least as distinctive as, or are more distinctive than, the above-mentioned highly suggestive trademarks should likewise be registrable. It remains to be seen if CIPO examiners will take into account these Opposition Board decisions in determining whether a trademark lacks inherent distinctiveness, since those were decided in the context of trademark confusion.


The CIPO’s lack of inherent distinctiveness examination criterion is troublesome for applicants who wish to register a trademark which is somewhat suggestive of the associated goods and services. We await further guidance from the Trademarks Opposition Board or the Court. Until then, applicants should be aware of this examination criterion, and commence using their trademarks throughout Canada as soon as possible, potentially before filing an application, to acquire distinctiveness if the mark is not clearly inherently distinctive.

[1] Trademarks Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. T-13.

[2] CIPO Trademarks Examination Manual, section 4.9.5 “Examples”.

[3] Trademarks Act, paragraph 32(2).

[4] CIPO Trademarks Examination Manual, section 4.9.3 “Inherently distinctive”.

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