Who's Suing Whom: Trademarking the millennium

Who's Suing Whom

THE HIGH COURT will rule this week on whether the word "millennium" can be trademarked. De Beers, the world's biggest diamond business, has applied to the court for a declaration that Alfred Dunhill, the luxury goods maker, cannot enforce the trademark Dunhill registered on the word "millennium" back in 1980. The judgement could have landmark significance, since a legion of "millennium" products are being planned.

De Beers is seeking an urgent ruling since it has already launched its "Millennium Diamonds" collection to mark the year 2000. Each diamond will be numbered from 1 to 2,000 and will have the name of a star etched on it. The diamonds will retail at over $10,000 each.

The row started in February when Dunhill wrote to De Beers complaining of trademark infringement. A preliminary hearing before Mr Justice Blackburn is set for this Thursday in the High Court.

Alfred Dunhill registered the word millennium as a trademark for watches and clocks in 1980, as well as a similar trademark covering jewellery. Tony Willoughby, partner at Dunhill's law firm Willoughby & Partners, said Dunhill was determined to fight the case.

Mr Willoughby said: "The trademark registry was perfectly happy to accept the word millennium as a trademark in 1980 when it was first registered. Alfred Dunhill has consistently used it as a trademark ever since and the mere fact that millennium, a noun, has recently entered the English language as an adjective does not invalidate the trademark."

Mr Willoughby added that Alfred Dunhill "is not seeking to stop legitimate descriptive use of the word millennium".

A LEGAL battle over a Midlands property scheme that went sour has prompted the trustees of the scheme to issue a protective writ against a London Docklands development by the same company.

The sponsor of the property schemes involved, Laser Richmount, was founded as a joint venture between Richard Ellis and Johnson Fry in the early 1990s to sponsor enterprise zone property trusts.

In February this year around 900 investors in the Laser Richmount (Telford) Trust launched a legal action against Johnson Fry, the financial advisers, and Richard Ellis, the property firm, alleging that investors had been misled by the original marketing material. Although around pounds 30m had been invested, the value of the property has fallen to a third of that figure.

Both Johnson Fry and Richard Ellis are contesting the action. The trustee of the Laser Richmount trusts, Barclays Bank, is launching a protective writ against the same firms over the "Laser Richmount London Trust 1991", a separate trust which invested in a series of buildings on the Isle of Dogs, in London's Docklands.

In its writ Barclays accuses the two firms of professional negligence and of making negligent mis-statements. Barclays has done so in order to avoid being "out of time" if it later decides it should take legal action over the London trust. It has issued, but not served, the writ, thus holding it "in reserve". The action would otherwise have been time- barred after three years from the date the alleged mis-statement was discovered. There has been no suggestion of investor discontent at the London trust.

Richard Ellis bought out Johnson Fry's stake in Laser Richmount four years ago. The property firm declined to comment, but it is understood that it is confident there are no problems with either the Telford or London trusts, and that it has no case to answer.

A Johnson Fry spokesman said that if Barclays did serve the London writ, the firm would defend the claim vigorously. "We do not believe we have a case to answer," he said.

Joe Palmer, chairman of the Personal Investment Authority (PIA), the financial regulator, was the original chairman of Laser Richmount. A PIA spokeswoman said Mr Palmer has had no link with Laser Richmount "for a number of years". A Barclays spokeswoman pointed out that the bank has sold its trustee business to Royal Exchange Trust Company, which will be dealing with any Laser Richmount-related matters in future.

LOSSES OF up to $2.5bn by a pool of insurers in the US insurance market have had a knock-on effect in London, prompting a British reinsurance firm to sue a Bermudan insurance broker for fraud.

The case stems from losses incurred by Unicover, a US insurance management agency, which ran a pool of five US life reinsurers (Lincoln National, Pheonix Home Life, Connecticut Re, Reliastar Life and Cologne Life Re), who reinsured workers compensation business.

This business has produced huge losses for the pool, leading to problems for other firms which took on some of the reinsurance risk.

Odyssey Re London has taken legal action against the Bermudan brokers Stirling Cooke Browne, concerning Unicover business passed on to it by Pheonix Home Life and Lincoln National.

Odyssey suffered losses of about $1bn on the Unicover business last year. Odyssey, which is owned by Fairfax, a US investment vehicle, claims it was not told of the true nature of the risks involved.

Stirling Cooke Browne is contesting the claim. The case is due to be heard in New York this year.

LAST WEEK's column referred to an underwriting agency, Weavers, that collapsed in 1993. It was described as a Lloyd's agency. In fact it was a London underwriting agency, and had no connection with Lloyd's.

Edited by John Willcock

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