Barbara Becker, the former wife of three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker, won a European Union court challenge to audio-systems maker Harman International Industries Inc.’s trademark rights to the name Becker.
The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled that how well-known a person is should be among the considerations when checking whether a surname should qualify for EU trademark protection. It rejected a lower court’s assessment that her full name would be too similar to Harman’s trademarks “Becker” and “Becker Online Pro.”
Today’s ruling helps clarify how much protection famous people can get under EU trademark law for names that are already being used as brands by a company. Barbara Becker applied for an EU trademark on her name in 2002, two years after Harman, which makes sound systems for homes and vehicles, filed for its trademarks.
The lower EU court “erred in law in basing its assessment on the conceptual similarity of the marks,” the EU’s Court of Justice said. The 2008 decision failed to take “account of factors specific to the case,” including Barbara Becker’s status as a well-known person.
Calls to Harman, based in Stamford, Connecticut, outside regular office hours weren’t answered.
Today’s decision means that the General Court, the EU’s second-highest court, will have to re-examine the case. The lower EU court had ruled that the two trademarks were similar “visually, phonetically and conceptually.”
“Although it is possible that, in a part of the European Union, surnames have, as a general rule, a more distinctive character than forenames, it is appropriate, however, to take account of factors specific to the case,” the nine-page judgment said today. This includes checking whether the name Becker is unusual or very common.
“Account must also be taken of whether the person who requests that his first name and surname, taken together, be registered as a trademark is well known, since that factor may obviously influence the perception of the mark by the relevant public,” said a five-judge panel of the court in the judgment.
Boris Becker became one of Germany’s most popular personalities after winning his first Wimbledon title in 1985. He took the title at the age of 17, making him the youngest Wimbledon champion in history. He retired from competitive tennis in 1999 after winning six Grand Slam tournaments, including two Australian Opens and the 1989 U.S. Open.
Boris Becker and his wife separated in 2000 after seven years of marriage.
The case is C-51/09 P Becker v Harman International Industries.