Qu├ębec Court of Appeal Reaffirms Use of Non-French Trademarks on Business Signs

On April 27, 2015, the Court of Appeal of Québec, in a unanimous ruling, confirmed that the Charter of the French Language (Charter) allows for the use of non-French trademarks (including English trademarks) on storefront/public signs and advertising in the province, provided that no equivalent French trademark has been registered.1

Superior Court Decision

In 2012, a group of international retailers filed a motion in the Superior Court of Québec seeking a declaration that their use of non-French trademarks did not infringe the Charter. The group of retailers were reacting to a change in policy around 2011 by the Office québécois de la langue française (the OQLF) that any business that used a non-French trademark on commercial advertising and public signs, including storefront signs, needed to comply with the rules applicable to business names, which requires the addition of a general French descriptive word. Prior to this point, it was commonly understood that while the Charter specified that French must appear on public signs, posters and commercial advertising, the regulations enacted under the Charter provided an exception to recognized trademarks that are not in French and for which no French equivalent has been registered. The Superior Court ruled in favour of the retailers by declaring that the trademark exception does apply to the use of trademarks on public signs, including storefront signs, and that the public display of a non-French trademark (if no French equivalent was registered) does not violate the Charter.

Court of Appeal Decision

The Court of Appeal rejected the Attorney General’s interpretation of the Charter and regulations, noting that it effectively ignored the regulated trademark exception. The Court of Appeal emphasized that the Charter and regulations clearly allow for the use of a non-French trademark in public signage, provided that such use meets the terms of the trademark exception. The Court also held that this exception would apply even if a trademark is being used as a business name. As a result, the Court of Appeal found that the retailers’ use of their trademarks on their storefront signage complied with the Charter. The Court of Appeal noted that its interpretation of the Charter and regulations are in line with the OQLF’s historical approach in enforcing such laws, and that it is only recently that the OQLF has undertaken an interpretation that is not reflected in the text of the Charter and regulations themselves.

The Attorney General has 60 days to seek leave to appeal the judgment to the Supreme Court of Canada, but has not yet announced whether leave will be sought.

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1 Québec (Procureure générale) c. Magasins Best Buy ltée et als, 2015 QCCA 747 (available online at: http://courdappelduquebec.ca/en/judgments/details/article/procureur-general-du-quebec-c-magasins-best-buy-ltee-et-als/cont/News/action/detail/).

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