The UK indie pop band Easy Life and its front man, Murray Matravers, have been labelled a “brand thief” by easyGroup, the owner of the ‘easy’ family of brands.
Some of the better-known brands associated with easyGroup Ltd include easyJet, easyHotel, easyCar, easyMoney and easyCleaning. The relevant ‘easy’ brand to this case is www.easyLife.co.uk, an online catalogue retail business that joined the family of brands two years ago.
Easy Life, the band were formed in 2017 and have since grown in popularity, winning an NME award for Best New British Act in 2020. Whilst there is no obvious connection between an indie band from Leicester and a large corporation such as easyGroup, the band’s name and what they probably assumed was harmless advertising material, has got them into a substantial legal trouble. They now face trade mark infringement proceedings in the High Court – but why?
EasyGroup owns more than 1,000 registered trade marks including a trademark for the word “easy”, easyLife, easyJet, easyMusic and a mark depicting an easyJet aircraft.
There are two elements of a registered trade mark to consider: the words, or logo or image itself, and the class it is registered in, meaning the category defining the type of product or service sold by that brand.
The band called themselves Easy Life, a set of words which have further meaning than being the name of an online catalogue retail business. Whilst easyGroup have a UK trade mark for the word easyLife, for it to be enforceable against the band that trade mark would need to be registered in the relevant class.
The easyLife trade mark is registered in ‘class 35’, which covers a large range of services and products such as, advertising and marketing services, musical instruments, CDs, DVDs or clothing.
In 2021, the band published a poster promoting their 2021/2022 “Life’s a beach” tour. A prominent feature of this poster is a white and orange aircraft with the words ‘easy Life’ written where easyJet would usually appear. They also created a tour t-shirt with easyLife in orange and purple writing.
The Trade Marks Act 1994 (“TMA”) outlines the different categories of infringement:
- S 10 (1) TMA deals with circumstances where the infringer utilises an identical trade mark on identical goods or services.
- S 10 (2) (a) & (b) TMA relates to unauthorised use of an identical mark on similar goods or services, or a similar mark on identical or similar good or services, in so doing creating confusion as to the origin of the goods or services and the suggestion of an association between the two marks or businesses.
- S 10 (3) TMA provides protection in circumstances where an unauthorised party usus an identical or similar mark on goods or services which are not similar but benefit from the registered trade mark’s existing reputation, gaining an unfair advantage. This can also include the use of the trade mark in relation to goods or services identical to or similar to the trade mark to obtain an unfair advantage to the detriment of the registered trade mark.
How does this apply to the band’s action? Is there any merit in easyGroup’s claim?
Starting with the band’s adoption of the name Easy Life, easyGroup does have protection for the words easy life, but only in class 35. The band is using an identical mark but being a music band, which is usually protected under class 9 – sound recording, musical instruments and downloadable music files – class 25 for band merchandise, and class 41, for entertainment services, live performances and music production. It is safe to assume that they are not operating with identical goods or services.
Most importantly, a member of the public is not going to make an association between the band Easy Life and an online/catalogue retail business.
Easy Life were safe using their name until they went a step too far with the advertising material mentioned above.
It might seem harmless to reproduce an image of an easyJet plane, which is a trade marked image, onto a poster. However, this is one of the services and goods listed under class 16 which this particular mark is protected by.
The word trade mark easyLife is also used on the image of the plane, which as stated above is protected for advertising and clothing. Therefore, both items could amount to infringement under s 10 (2) (b), for using an identical or similar mark, on identical or similar goods or services.
However, where easyGroup may struggle in their claim is overcoming the “creating confusion as to the origin of the goods or services and the suggestion of an association between the two marks or businesses” part of this section.
Would anyone see the poster and believe there is an association between the origin of the goods or services provided by these two very different brands? Probably not.
To overcome this barrier and to rely on a potentially stronger claim, easyGroup has tactfully taken offence to the band’s behaviour. In a statement released on easy.com, easyGroup reference the bands potentially infringing activities:
“easyGroup Ltd is concerned with some of the band’s behaviour to date and easyGroup Ltd does not want the band using easyGroup trademarks and logos as such could negatively affect easyGroup’s Intellectual Property. It is possible to take unfair advantage of a brand or damage a brand’s reputation even if customers are not confused.” further stating “Mr. Matravers has intentionally used easyGroup’s well known stylisation and images of easyJet planes in his marketing. Not only does this take unfair advantage of easyGroup’s brand but it can also damage it as. For example, negative PR about Matravers (for example having to be carried off stage for being too drunk to perform), can reflect badly on easyGroup. Confusion is not necessary for such tarnishment to occur”.
Looking at this matter from both sides, it is easy to see how the band thought to use the branding of a more well-known but un-associated business to add a level of notoriety or parody to their advertising material. It’s not a radical idea, it’s an easy link to make and would seem harmless, being unaware of the potential legal implications.
However, the band cannot deny it was done with the intention of benefitting from the status of that company regardless of their differences.
But why would a large international corporation be interested in an Indie pop band from Leicester? Firstly, it has a natural right under UK law to protect its IP. Plus, there is an incentive in the IP world for brands to be seen to protect its IP rights. Actively or aggressively pursuing any and all potential infringers can be a strong deterrent for others.
It will be interesting to see what defence is advanced by the band’s legal representatives. Will they counter easyGroup assertions that the band is harming its reputation with their conduct?
If easyGroup are successful, the band might be forced to pay damages, or an account of profits for their use of the trade marks on their advertising.
The court could force the band to change its name, if proceedings go that far. In this scenario, it could be more commercial for the band to negotiate a settlement. The potential compromise being a licence granted to the band stipulating the terms on which they can use the name and them paying a royalty for that use.
All of which would not be appealing for the band. If they can bear the risk of this case being heard at court, they might successfully defend themselves and recover a percentage of their costs from easyGroup. Only time will tell.
However, the case progresses and is ultimately decided, the main takeaway for UK brands is a cautionary one. When deciding on a brand name or design, check its not already in use. Or, if it is, that the other brands do not overlap in industries or target audience.
This case is a useful reminder that not all brands have the sense of humour that the likes of BrewDog have, referencing the X (formerly Twitter) wars between them an Aldi, where the drama turned to banter on X instead of any legal action, if they feel their brand is being infringed.
IP owners are entitled to enforce their rights, no matter how innocently you are using their name, or whether it’s a coincidental similarity or intentional satire.
The statement released by easyGroup does make for an interesting read. It also highlights the aggressive stance some brands are prepared to take, no matter the size of the potential infringer: “easyGroup Ltd has a legal budget of £4m per year with which to take action against brand thieves, big and small”.
Don’t assume the big brands won’t notice a smaller outfit seemingly seeking to ride on its coattails and not act.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this, ‘is it ok?’ article. Each case will be decided on its merits and nuances. It is important to be aware of your IP rights and your potential competitors’ activities. We recommend seeking legal advice as soon as you become aware of a potential infringer, or you are alerted of a potential claim against you.