EFTA Court - Notable Cases - International Exhaustion of Trademark Rights

International Exhaustion of Trademark Rights

In Case E-2/97 Mag Instruments (1997 EFTA Court Report, 127), a parallel importer purchased Maglite flashlights in California, where they were manufactured, and imported them into Norway without the manufacturer’s and trade mark owner’s consent. According to established Norwegian law, international exhaustion applied for trade marks. The EFTA Court held that under the First Trade Mark Directive 89/104/EEC, the EFTA States were entitled to opt for international exhaustion of trade mark rights. The Court emphasized that they retained their sovereignty in foreign trade matters. Unlike the EC Treaty, the EEA Agreement did not establish a customs union, but an enhanced free trade area. The purpose and the scope of the EC Treaty and the EEA Agreement are therefore different. According to Article 8 EEA, the principle of free movement of goods as laid down in Articles 11 to 13 EEA applies only to goods originating in the EEA, while in the Community a product is in free circulation once it has been lawfully placed on the market in a Member State. In general, the latter applies in the context of the EEA only with respect to products originating in the EEA. In the case at hand, the product was manufactured in the United States and imported into Norway. Accordingly, it was not subject to the principle of the free movement of goods within the EEA. Based on this, the EFTA Court rejected the argument put forward by the governments of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom as well as by the European Commission that giving the EEA/EFTA States the right to opt for international exhaustion would lead to disparities in the EEA market. Article 7(1) of the Trade Mark Directive was interpreted so that it was for the EEA/EFTA States’ legislatures and courts to decide whether they wanted to introduce or to maintain the principle of international exhaustion of trade mark rights with regard to goods originating from outside the EEA. The EFTA Court found that international exhaustion was in the interest of free trade and competition and thus in the interest of consumers. Furthermore, the principle of international exhaustion was in line with the main function of a trade mark, to allow the consumer to identify with certainty the origin of the products. This interpretation of Article 7(1) of the Trade Mark Directive was also consistent with the TRIPs Agreement, which left the issue open for the Member States to regulate.

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