Institute of Brand and Innovation Law


3D Shape Marks: A 360-Degree Analysis

By Professor Ilanah Fhima

CLP Cover 2023

4 December 2023

Publication details

Ilanah Fhima, '3D Shape Marks: A 360-Degree Analysis' (2023) 76(1) Current Legal Problems 201.


Today’s consumers use a range of cues to identify product origin, including brand names, logos, colours and shapes. The range of registrable marks has therefore expanded, but this brings a risk that features which others have a legitimate competitive need to use will fall under the exclusive control of a single undertaking. Registration may also be used to extend the finite duration of other IP rights that the owner has already enjoyed. Consequently, trade mark law contains functionality limitations on registration designed to protect these competitive concerns. This piece considers how well those limitations are working. The CJEU has also seemed to apply stricter distinctiveness rules to shape marks based on the assumption that consumers are not used to seeing shapes as origin indicators. Some have assumed this means that it is almost impossible to register shape marks—this research examines whether this is really so. How functionality and distinctiveness work in practice is examined through an empirical analysis over a 5-year period of all shape mark applications to the European Union Intellectual Property Office. This piece considers which types of marks are being registered, which are being refused and why. It reveals that distinctiveness, rather than functionality, is having the biggest impact on shape mark registration, and in fact a larger number of shape marks than expected are registered: often because of the addition of non-3D matter. However, are a significant number of marks comprised just of product shapes. It concludes with a discussion of competitive and policy challenges identified by this research.

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