Unsurprisingly given the fast-growing awareness of the metaverse and its implications for brand owners, the Korean IP office (KIPO) has seen a sharp hike in the number of trademark applications covering virtual goods, increasing from just 6 in 2020, to 17 in 2021, and 717 filed between January and May 2022. Reacting to this trend, KIPO has issued new examination guidelines for trademark applications covering virtual goods, effective from July 14, 2022, to prevent applicant’s confusion and to increase consistency of examination.
Virtual goods may now be designated under Class 09 in the simple form “virtual + goods name”, for example “virtual clothing”, “virtual shoes” etc.
This means that it is no longer necessary to rely on long-winded descriptions such as “computer programs containing virtual clothing (virtual goods)” or “downloadable image files (virtual clothing)” which were previously acceptable.
Regardless, it is still necessary to specify the type of virtual goods, since an ambiguous description such as “virtual goods” would be unacceptable on account of it being overly broad.
Relationship between virtual goods
Previously, all virtual goods were considered to be similar regardless of their type. In theory, this meant that “virtual shoes” would have formally conflicted with diverse goods such as “virtual automobiles” etc. This naturally had the potential to lead to disputes between brand owners operating in wholly different fields.
Under the new guidelines, virtual goods will be sub-classified and compared based on their type, just like their physical counterparts. Thus, just as two applications for similar marks respectively covering “clothing” and “footwear” in Class 25 would not be considered conflicting under Korean examination practice, the same would be true for a pair of applications covering “virtual clothing” and “virtual footwear”. However, there would be a conflict between applications respectively covering “virtual pants” and “virtual clothing”, which are formally similar goods.
Relationship between physical and virtual goods
The new guidelines specify that physical and virtual goods will by default not be considered conflicting for the purposes of examination. By way of example, a new application covering “virtual clothing” in Class 09 would not be blocked by a senior mark covering “clothing” in Class 25.
However, if an application covering virtual goods is filed for a mark which is similar to an established well-known/famous mark, the examination regarding physical and virtual goods would also consider whether there is a likelihood of consumer confusion between the later-filed application and the well-known/famous mark, etc.
While some may have been on the fence before, now that KIPO has clarified its position on the similarity issue regarding physical and virtual goods, it is now important for brand owners to file in Class 09 if they wish to ensure they have protection for the virtual representation of their physical goods. With Korea being a first-to-file jurisdiction, it is recommended that such filing be done as soon as possible. (As discussed above, the new application must specify all of the virtual goods of interest individually, and it would not be sufficient to simply designate “virtual goods”.)
It would also be advisable to ensure that Class 09 is included in any trademark watching services set up for marks of importance or interest, especially given the rapid increase in filing activity for virtual goods.
Written by Jonathan MASTERS and Alex Hyon CHO