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Frucor drawn into Coca-Cola's trademark bottle case against Pepsi

The Coca-Cola Co has taken Frucor Beverages and PepsiCo to the High Court over the shape of Pepsi soft drink bottles, and the outcome of this civil case is likely to carry weight across the Tasman.

Frucor sells Pepsi products in New Zealand, such as Pepsi Max and 7UP. Coca-Cola claims the products use a contoured bottle that’s too similar to its trade marked bottles.

Coca-Cola has 58 registered trade mark cases in New Zealand, including three for bottle shape.

The beverage giant launched its New Zealand case against the two companies in October 2010, claiming they are in breach of the Trade Marks Act 2002 and Fair Trading Act 1986.

A week later, Coca-Cola issued proceedings in the Federal Court of Australia against PepsiCo and its Australian partner, Schweppes Australia.

Today in Coca-Cola’s opening submission at Auckland High Court, Queen’s counsel Bruce Gray told Justice Ed Wylie the Australian case has been held up by injunctions and other matters.

“Probably, your honour’s judgment will advise the Australian court,” Mr Gray told the court.

Meanwhile, a German court has ruled in PepsiCo’s favour in a similar claim, which Coca-Cola is appealing.

Coca-Cola is arguing the silhouette of its contoured bottle is distinctive by itself and covered by its registered trade marks. The defendants argue the bottle shape alone isn’t enough as consumers also take into consideration the colours, logo and other packaging on a product.

Further, Coca-Cola argues the two soft drink companies are misleading or deceiving consumers, which is a breach of the Fair Trading Act 1986.

Coca-Cola is seeking declarations, injunctions, delivery up or destruction of infringing products, damages, interest, and costs.

If PepsiCo is allowed to use the bottle shape, Mr Gray said, it would become a generic symbol of similar products.

“The question is whether the use by the defendant of its Carolina bottle either by itself … or in association with names and devices is likely to deceive or confuse,” he said.

Carolina is the name of Frucor's bottle.

Coca-Cola says it developed the contoured bottle in the 1910s and it has been in New Zealand for more than 70 years. All Coke products use the contoured bottle in New Zealand, Mr Gray said in his opening submission.

Shapes are relatively new to trade mark law, says Gus Hazel, intellectual property litigator with James & Wells, which isn’t involved with the case.

The Trade Marks Act was updated in 2002 (coming into force in 2003).  It included a host of things that can be trade marked, such as shapes, colours, smells, and sounds.

This is a step on from the more traditional trade marks of logos or words, he says.

“That’s the direction of development that trade mark law is taking and New Zealand is no different,” he says.

Still, there aren’t many shape or colour trademarks on the register, Mr Hazel says.

“They are relatively rare, and disputes over them reaching court is uncommon” he says.

Mr Gray spent most of his opening submission reciting the history of trade mark law.

AJ Park is representing Coca-Cola alongside Mr Gray, while Bell Gully is representing Frucor and PepsiCo alongside Queen’s counsel Andrew Brown.

The case is scheduled for 15 days with witnesses expected to give testimony from as far as California via videoconference.

More by Stephanie Flores

Comments and questions

What a load of rubbish. When I buy a Coke or a Pepsi, I do so based on what's on the label, not the shape of the bottle.

Perhaps Coke's feeling under pressure now due to the effect its high sugar levels are widely believed to be having on driving the obesity epidemic around the world, and the implications of this on its sales?

Exactly. It's a stretch to seriously argue that you would confuse the two.

I believe that if you conduct market research among Coke only drinkers & said "if pepsi was still blue, but had the same bottle", about 100% would say "Hell No"

In my opinion all sugar laden soft drinks by law should be in the most un ergonomic bottle shape know to mankind to distinguish these beverages as a poor choice at the point of purchase

Coke and Pepsi both sell their products in cans.

The cans are different by the colour and manufacturer information, same size, same tab.

The bottles may look the same, however the consumer whether brand loyal or cost aware will still know the difference.

i think Coca Cola should patent the wheel and then sue all the wheel manufacturers that they are violating their trade mark.
There are cetain patents and trademarks that are just plain stupid that only prevent industry developing ... not just Coka Cola, but others also.

I think CocaCola is stretching it on this one. As the article says, they already lost this argument in the German Courts. Certainly their original glass bottles are distinctive on the silhouette alone, and that applies to some of the plastic versions of the bottles used through to the 1990s/2000s. But I don't think the current plastic coke bottles have that same distinction - they appear much more generic in outline.

In the German case the Court found that many producers used a generic contoured shape for their bottles. They said the Coke bottle was distinctive because of the vertical grooves on the neck and lower body that are separated by a wide “belt” in the middle. They found the Pepsi bottle had neither of these instead featuring features wavy, horizontal lines without any belt.

Looking at the 600ml coke bottle in fron of me right now, I'd have to say it doesn't even have the verticle grooves in the top half, so the hape is even less distinctive than previous incarnations.