Formula One is on track for a legal battle this month which could force it to give the red light to its new logo.
F1 changed its logo for the first time in 23 years at last year’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in November. The driving force behind it was American investment firm Liberty Media which bought F1 for £6bn in January 2017 and wanted to stamp its mark on the sport.
The previous logo cleverly created the silhouette of a number one between a slanted letter ‘F’ and the speed lines opposite it. In contrast, the new one is much simpler and is formed from a curved stripe with a white line running through the middle followed by a straight line. It has raced into a storm as it bears a striking resemblance to one which has been registered by 3M, the stationery giant which makes Scotch tape and Post-it Notes.
On 22 May 3M lodged opposition to F1’s trademark application and a letter sent to Liberty Media by the European Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) reveals that it has been accepted in principle due to its previous registration.
It states that the opposition “has been found admissible at least insofar as it is based on the following earlier right...The adversarial part of the opposition proceedings will begin on 27/08/2018...The time limit for you to submit your observations in reply expires on 26/12/2018.”
3M has used its logo for the past year on a range of therapeutic clothing including ankle supports, knee straps and compression tights which protect airline passengers from the risk of deep-vein thrombosis. This put it on a collision course with F1 as the sport launched a line of clothing earlier this year featuring its new logo.
EUIPO Records show that 3M registered a pan-European trademark to its logo in June last year which gives it precedence as F1 didn’t even apply for its new logo until November. Its trademark application was made in 26 of the total of 45 categories and 3M’s filings state that its opposition covers “all the goods and services” because “there exists a likelihood of confusion on the part of the public.”
It means that if the authorities decide in 3M’s favour the sport could be forced to put the brakes on its new logo. F1’s application covers clothing but excludes therapeutic clothing which 3M’s mark is registered in. However, this separation doesn’t guarantee F1 protection because the logos appear to be so similar, as are some of the products they are used on.
In 2008 the European Court of Justice concluded that trademarks are “protected by a basic rule which prevents the registration or use of a sign identical or similar to a registered trademark, for goods or services identical or similar to those for which the mark is registered.”
F1 may try to head off a clash by paying 3M which is allowable according to Michael Gardner, partner at law firm Wedlake Bell. “As for whether a negotiated settlement could bring the opposition proceedings to an end. Yes that is perfectly possible,” he says. “The parties can reach a settlement whenever they like. Provided they both agree, the proceedings would be stopped at that point.”
3M has the earlier trademark registration so it doesn't need to settle with F1 but vice versa. If 3M agreed to this it could come at a high cost for the sport.
Founded in 1902 as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, 3M makes more than 55,000 products and last year alone made pre-tax profits of £5.6bn ($7.5bn) on £23.8bn ($31.7bn) of revenue which was 18 times higher than F1’s tally.
The value of the company is a staggering 15 times greater than that of F1 and it is driven by its portfolio of brands which have become household names. They could have become generic if 3M had accepted money from companies using logos which are similar rather than aggressively protecting and defending its trademarks.
Fans and industry figures may rejoice at the idea of F1’s new logo being sent into the pits as many preferred its predecessor. When it was unveiled, reigning champion Lewis Hamilton said “I don’t think the new one is as iconic.” Rival Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel added that he “liked the old one better” while fans likened it to everything from a headless bull to a kitchen tap. Even worse could be just around the corner.
The logo that F1 selected isn’t the only one it applied for. It made trademark applications for two other alternatives which haven’t been opposed but have also been panned. If F1 switches its logo to one of them it could leave fans thinking that they should have been careful what they wished for.