For decades, the acronym KSRTC has been synonymous with public transport services in both Karnataka and Kerala. However, the peaceful coexistence of the same abbreviation for their respective state road transport corporations took an unexpected turn in 2014 when Karnataka issued a legal notice to Kerala, claiming trademark ownership. What ensued was a seven-year legal battle, unraveling complexities surrounding trademark laws and historical significance.
Trademark Ownership Dispute:
In 2014, Karnataka asserted its claim over the KSRTC acronym, contending that it had acquired the trademark. The chairman and managing director of Kerala State Road Transport Corporation responded by applying for trademark registration in Kerala. This move, however, hit a roadblock as the Trademark Registrar revealed that the acronym was already registered in Karnataka's favor, leading to an extended legal confrontation.
Trademark Act of 1999:
The registration of an acronym as a trademark is not explicitly restricted by the Trademark Act of 1999. Nevertheless, issues arise when abbreviations, like KSRTC, attain secondary meanings significant to a state's history, reputation, or commercial value. This legal conundrum posed a challenge, especially as online transport methods became prevalent, causing confusion among the public.
First User Rule and Secondary Meaning:
To settle the dispute, both states invoked the "first user rule," which grants trademark ownership to the entity that first used or registered the trademark. Kerala, backed by clear evidence of historical usage, including old buses, bus garages, and records from previous Transport Ministers, successfully established its claim. Additionally, the concept of "secondary meaning" played a crucial role, recognizing that KSRTC had acquired distinct meanings over time, with Kerala's usage taking precedence.
Resolution and Trademark Acquisition:
After seven years of legal battles, Kerala State Road Transport Corporation finally acquired the Trademark and acronym of KSRTC on June 3, 2021. The resolution hinged on demonstrating historical usage, thereby securing the first user status and debunking Karnataka's claims.
Implications for Trademark Cases:
This prolonged dispute sheds light on important considerations for trademark cases. While it may not serve as legal precedence, the utilization of the first user rule and acknowledgment of the historical significance of the trademark offer insights into resolving similar conflicts. Trademarks, as intellectual property rights, hold vital importance, necessitating a careful balance between legal norms and historical context.
In the aftermath of the dispute, Biju Prabhakar, MD of KSRTC, and the Minister of Transportation in Kerala announced plans to notify Karnataka Transportation Corporation to cease using the KSRTC brand name on their buses. However, Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation opted to explore all legal avenues to challenge the recent ruling in favor of Kerala. As the dust settles, this trademark dispute has not disrupted the longstanding understanding between the two states but has undoubtedly illuminated key principles in handling such intellectual property conflicts.