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A French TV channel trademarked the word ‘planet.’ It’s not going over well with environmental groups

The media giant Groupe Canal+ is pushing back when environmental groups with the word in their names try to trademark their organization’s titles—named for the planet they’re trying to protect.

A French TV channel trademarked the word ‘planet.’ It’s not going over well with environmental groups
[Image: Daniel Salo/Fast Company (illustration), Goddard Space Flight Center/NASA (source images)]
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If you’re an environmental group, simply being able to use the word “planet” in your work seems as if it should be fairly straightforward. But, an intellectual property battle is now brewing in France, between a media giant and a collective of environmental NGOs, over the use of the word.

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The Paris-based company Groupe Canal+, or the Canal+ Group, comprises a long list of TV channels broadcasted around the French-speaking world, as well as a renowned film studio, Studio Canal. When it launched one of its channels, Planète+, which airs documentaries, in 1999, it trademarked the word planète or planet. Since then, it has regularly opposed trademarks by other companies whose names contain the word, and has lately been targeting a range of environmental NGOs—whose work is committed to saving said planet.

One group, Planète Amazone, is planning to release a documentary in February on the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and recently tried to register its name as a trademark. The group’s director, Gert-Peter Bruch, told The Associated Press that they received a letter from Groupe Canal+’s legal affairs department “claiming ownership of the planet brand.” Bruch thought it was so absurd that he was sure it was a fake letter (and even worried about clicking on the email attachment for fear of a virus). Bruch now has until Wednesday to file materials to the INPI, France’s intellectual property authority, to avoid legal action.

Another nonprofit, Run for Planet – 15 Million Trees for Siberia, also received a letter from the media corporation, after it tried to trademark its name as it plans a charity run in 2022, from France to Russia, to raise money for replanting Siberia’s suffering forests. The founder, Laure Ansart, has to wait for a trademark decision from the INPI expected early next year.

Groupe Canal+, whose offering over its multiple channels draws in 15 million subscribers, is reportedly arguing that these other groups’ documentaries and events could be thought to be associated with the company, since it “enjoys strong recognition on the French and European markets,” according to the letter sent to Bruch, viewed by The Associated Press. But the notion that they’re creating confusion is “absurd,” the groups said in a joint editorial, published in the French magazine Marianne, in November.

Thirteen NGOs, including Bruch’s and Ansart’s, banded together as Our Common Planet, and wrote the joint editorial, in which they said they were in a “Kafkaesque situation” where they are “no longer able to name what they are responsible for preserving.” What’s more, those groups often don’t have the money to legally defend themselves against corporations. “The consequences are harmful for associations and small structures that do not have the financial or human resources to defend their own brand,” a translation of the op-ed reads.

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It adds that recent governmental antitrust laws have allowed free market competition to be fairer, but that such laws are still absent around intellectual property, which has permitted “large groups to privatize common words for commercial purposes.” They argue that their names should be allowed to co-exist with those of Canal+.

Fast Company reached out to Groupe Canal+’s owner, Vivendi, for comment, but it declined. At the time of writing, INPI hadn’t replied to a request for the status of the trademark cases.

The illogical nature of the situation was not lost on the collective. “Can we…imagine that, by an administrative sleight of hand, anyone can claim a commercial monopoly on the designation of our world, or even of any celestial body orbiting around a star?”