Trademark Infringement and The Tort of Passing Off
In Royal Pacific Real Estate Group Ltd. v. Dong, 2020 BCCA 323, the British Columbia Court of Appeal made it clear that unauthorized use of a trademark carries legal consequences. The Court found that the Defendant, Mr. Dong, had committed the tort of passing off, despite his arguments that he had proper consent from the Plaintiff, Royal Pacific Real Estate Group Ltd., to use the Royal Pacific trademark. Mr. Dong had signed an agreement with the Plaintiff whereby he would work under the real estate group as an independently contracted real estate representative. The agreement allowed and even encouraged Mr. Dong to use the Royal Pacific trademark in this capacity, because the group is well-known for success in the Vancouver area, having arranged billions of dollars of sales. But Mr. Dong could only properly use the trademark for his work under the real estate group; he was not authorized to use the trademark for his other private businesses. One of these included his business named Bliip Box, which he’d hoped to have as a supplier of real estate websites.
Mr. Dong took several actions which constituted trademark infringement including making available the contact information of the Royal Pacific group on his personal website, such that the public would consider Royal Pacific to be endorsing or associated with Mr. Dong’s personal site. The Defendant also sent solicitation emails to various real estate agents, saying that Royal Pacific was seeking to endorse local businesses through his personal Bliip Box company, while Royal Pacific had no intent of this. Even after Royal Pacific lawfully terminated their agreement with the Defendant, and as such he no longer had authority to use the trademark whatsoever, he continued to do so. Bliip Box continued to display Royal Pacific’s trademark, and in launching this business relied on the Royal Pacific online domain name. The Court of Appeal upheld the trial judgement that Mr. Dong had committed the tort of passing off outlined under section 7 of the Trademark Act. The Court recognized that the three elements of passing off were present, being: The existence of reputation or goodwill, a misrepresentation leading the public to believe an association between the parties, and damage or potential damage to the Plaintiff, as outlined in Vancouver Community College v. Vancouver Career College (Burnaby) Inc., 2017 BCCA 41.
The goodwill associated with familiar trademarks has commercial value, and companies such as Royal Pacific will not stand silent in the face of passing off. The Defendant passing off his goods and services as being endorsed by and associated with the trademarked name can be viewed as the unauthorized use of goodwill, and wrongful confusion of the public. While the trial judge only awarded nominal damages of $6,000 to the Plaintiff, an injunction restraining Mr. Dong from continued trademark infringement was also granted. The Court held that the Plaintiffs underwent considerable inconvenience, but that Mr. Dong hadn’t financially benefited from his conduct.