Inside big brands' intensifying India battle against copycats
As more companies realise how essential it is to protect their brands, the battles are getting more intense.
As India’s laws around intellectual property (IP) and trademark are strengthened, legal experts and senior company executives say they are beginning to see a far greater emphasis on enforcing trademarks and other company IP in a country that has historically regarded these facets rather lightly. And as more company executives realise how essential it is to protect their brands, the battles are getting more intense.
“Whether it’s a small entity, a startup or a big entity, all have now equally started to fiercely guard their IP rights, especially trademarks,” says Vikrant Rana, managing partner, SS Rana and Co, a legal firm specialising in this form of law. “This is a result of the uproar against an increase in counterfeiting, misuse of trademarks on several ecommerce portals and the constantly changing face of issues related to trademark infringement.”
In December last year, Makemytrip’s action exemplified how far companies were willing to go to protect their brands. The portal sued five entities for using names that were uncomfortably close to its brand name. “Businesses are recognised by their brand names and that’s how customers, suppliers and the entire ecosystem identifies that business,” says a Makemytrip spokesperson. “A strong brand is valuable, and it is therefore important for MakeMyTrip to protect its brand name, as any brand or trademark infringement could confuse or misguide customers, and they may mistake another entity for MakeMyTrip.”
Makemytrip is not the only one rushing to court. Beverage giant Starbucks dragged homegrown rival Sardarbuksh to court for operating a brand that sounds very similar to the Seattle-based behemoth. On August 1, the Delhi High Court ruled in favour of Starbucks. Sanmeet Singh Kalra, cofounder of the homegrown brand, said his firm was compelled to change the name to Sardarji-Bakhsh because it rhymed with the global giant’s. But, he said, their logo of a man in a turban would stay. Some 30 stores of Sardarbuksh have been rebranded Sardarji-Bakhsh.
However, the last word may not have been said in this case, as the founders of Saradarji-Buksh are gearing up for a prolonged fight with Starbucks. They have signed up top lawyers and say they will appeal the decision.
The American company has stressed its focus on protecting its IP. “As a responsible trademark owner, we take the protection of our marks seriously,” says a spokesperson of Tata Starbucks, the joint venture that owns and operates the cofcoffee chain’s outlets in India.
As the implementation and enforcement of copyright laws become stricter, more companies will be sucked into legal battles. Ranjan Negi, partner & head-intellectual property, Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas, says: “Indian trademark law is evolved and up to date with most modern trademark jurisprudence and in compliance with international norms such as TRIPS and Paris Convention for protection of intellectual property.” The law has been amended and procedure has been streamlined significantly to enable protection for trademarks internationally and to facilitate e-filing, too.
A section of experts says India has to keep the reform ball rolling. India ranked 44 on a list of 50 global economies on the 2018 Annual IP Index. The US Chamber of Commerce Global Innovation Policy Center, which released the rankings, said: “India, for the first time, broke free of the bottom 10% of economies measured, due in part to the passage of guidelines to improve the patentability environment for technological innovations, as well as the implementation of some tenets of the National Intellectual Property Rights Policy. The country’s score, however, continues to suggest that additional, meaningful reforms are needed.”
While Starbucks has had some success in fighting copycat brands, Swedish furniture and furnishing giant Ikea’s efforts have been less fruitful.
Ajit Isaac, the founder and chief executive of Quess Corp that operates HR consultancy Ikya Global, successfully faced Ikea in court. “MNCs come all gun blazing in court. They tend to hire the most expensive lawyers and have to ensure that, at least optically, they have done as much as possible,” says Isaac.
His legal battle may not be over yet as the Swedish giant has appealed the case in the Delhi High Court. He, however, has no plan to change the branding, unless a court asks him. Isaac contends these moves were only delaying resolution.
Before it decided to enter India, Ikea went on the offensive in 2013, seeking injunctions and taking other legal action against 15 entities in India. They include Ikya from Quess, furniture maker Ikia in West Bengal and an events management firm Aikya in Hyderabad. All these cases are pending in court. In India, Ikea owns at least 45 trademarks.
Looks like the tussle over trademarks is only going to get more intense.