The Impact of Changes to Canada’s Trademarks Act on the Pharmaceutical Industry

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By Erin Creber, January 29th, 2018

The Canadian trademark regime is set to experience a significant overhaul once major amendments to the Trademarks Act take effect. The amendments are expected to come into force in 2019 and are designed to allow Canada to implement the Nice Agreement, the Singapore Treaty and the Madrid Protocol. While the amendments will have an impact on all Canadian trademark owners and any business seeking trademark protection, they will present unique challenges to the pharmaceutical industry specifically.

Registration Regardless of Use

One of the most significant changes to the Trademarks Act involves removing the requirement that a trademark must be used prior to registration. Under the new practice, a trademark application will automatically proceed to registration upon expiration of the opposition period. Currently, it is possible to file a trademark application on the basis of “proposed use” or “intent to use”. However, an application based on proposed use cannot proceed to registration until the applicant files a declaration attesting to use of the mark in Canada.

Companies seeking to protect a proposed drug name not only have to comply with the trademark registration process, but also have to seek the approval of any proposed drug name from Health Canada as part of drug approval process, in accordance with the Food and Drug Regulations. Health Canada’s assessment of a drug name is performed from a health and safety perspective. Factors considered by Health Canada include the similarity of existing and discontinued drug names and the potential to mistake one drug name for another, resulting in medication errors. There is no guarantee that a drug name used and allowed internationally will be approved for use in Canada.

The Health Canada approval process can be lengthy and there can be no sale of the product - and consequently no use of the drug name - while approval is pending. This means that pharmaceutical applicants are often forced to request multiple extensions of time to file declarations attesting to use of a mark, and may even lose their applications if there is no use of a mark prior to the final deadline to file the declaration.

The new trademark laws will allow owners of pharmaceutical trademarks to obtain registered trademark protection prior to the completion of the drug approval process, thereby eliminating the need to file (or request extensions of time to file) declarations attesting to use. The result is a more rapid and streamlined trademark registration process.

That said, use will remain an important consideration for trademark owners since a registration will be susceptible to a non-use cancellation proceeding beginning three years after the date of registration. If there is no use, and an owner cannot establish “special circumstances” justifying the lack of use, the registration will be cancelled. However, it is possible that non-use due to pending Health Canada approval may be considered a “special circumstance” sufficient to justify maintaining the registration despite no use of the mark in Canada.

Non-Traditional Trademarks

Current Canadian trademark law permits registration of a limited number of non-traditional trademarks such as colour, shape and sound. The amendments to the Trademarks Act will allow applicants to seek trademark protection for a wider variety of non-traditional trademarks including holograms, scents, tastes and textures. However, with the changes will come an additional level of scrutiny as it will be necessary to show distinctiveness of a trademark at the date of filing if the Canadian Trademarks Office does not consider the mark to be inherently distinctive. At present, there is no requirement to prove distinctiveness of marks consisting of colour, shape or sound.

To prove distinctiveness of a mark, an applicant will have to file affidavit evidence and/or survey evidence establishing the reputation and distinctiveness of its trademark across Canada. If proof of distinctiveness is only demonstrated in parts of Canada, the resulting registration will be restricted to those provinces and/or territories in which distinctiveness has been established.

Pharmaceutical companies have historically faced unique challenges when seeking registered trademark protection of colour, shape and sound marks. The recent case Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association v Boehringer Ingelheim Pharma Gmbh & Co. KG (2017 TMOB 47) confirms the additional hurdles faced by the pharmaceutical industry in proving distinctiveness of a product having a particular shape and colour. Not only must it be shown that an ordinary consumer associates the trademark (without markings) with a single source of manufacture to a significant degree, but that association must be established for a substantial body of consumers which, for pharmaceutical products, consists of physicians, pharmacists and patients.

Given that there is presently no requirement for proving distinctiveness of colour, shape and sound marks, it is advisable for trademark owners to consider seeking protection now, while the more lenient trademark regime remains in effect.

International Registration of Trademarks

Finally, the amendments to the Trademarks Act will allow Canada to adhere to the Madrid Protocol, an international trademark registration system. The Madrid Protocol simplifies the filing of corresponding trademark applications in foreign countries once an applicant has a home country application or registration.

Currently, Canadian companies seeking to obtain registered trademark protection in various countries outside of Canada must file trademark applications in each jurisdiction. With the implementation of the Madrid Protocol, it will be possible to file corresponding trademark applications in multiple foreign jurisdictions and countries through a single “international” application. Similarly, foreign applicants seeking international trademark protection will have the opportunity to designate Canada under the Madrid Protocol.

Canada’s adoption of the Madrid Protocol will permit trademark owners, including those in the pharmaceutical industry, to realize the advantages of this simplified international filing system. Not only will applicants have easier access to trademark protection in foreign jurisdictions but the more efficient, centralized application process will result in financial savings.


The upcoming changes to Canadian trademark law, including the implementation of the international treaties, will help to modernize Canada’s trademark system and bring the country in-line with international standards. Trademark owners should ensure that they understand the implications of the new legislation and adjust their trademark protection strategies accordingly. For more information please contact:

Erin Creber, Associate, Trademark Agent

T: 613.801.0044

E: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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