I would be interested in hearing arguments for and against pre-emptive letters (as in – ‘please assure me that I’m not about to infringe your rights’) of the kind described in this case, Numatic International v Qualtex  EWHC 1237 (Ch) e. It seems to be that there is little motivation for a rights owner to ever give a go-ahead to a competitor in this sort of situation. Yes, maybe it could prevent a litigation (didn’t here), but why provide a competitor a free roadmap as to how to appropriate non-protectable godwill? However, people send these sorts of letters so there may be compelling reasons to do so.
At some point prior to the end of January 2008 Qualtex formed the intention to have manufactured and to sell a replica of the Henry cleaner. Qualtex concluded that, provided that they chose a design in which all relevant intellectual property rights (such as all the various forms of national and community, registered and unregistered design rights) had expired, they should be free to do so, provided that they did not use any Numatic trade mark such as the name Henry. In this they are absolutely right. There is no point in having design rights with expiry dates if traders are not free to market replica products thereafter. The only qualification to this is that they must not market a product in such a way as to lead to passing off.
Accordingly on 31st January 2008 Qualtex instructed solicitors, Robinsons, to write to Numatic telling them that they intended to launch such a product, but that it would not use the Henry name or have a Henry “face” or anything confusingly similar to either. At this stage Robinsons did not identify for whom they acted, but nothing turns on this, because they identified themselves in their next letter, in response to a request from Patent and Trade Mark Attorneys, FJ Cleveland, instructed by Numatic, for these details and for details of the proposed product.
Robinsons’ letter of 21st February stated that the product would be a replica of the 1997 version of Henry, and repeated its request that Numatic state whether any rights in or relating to Henry would be infringed. On 25th February 2008 FJ Cleveland wrote asking whether the replica product would reproduce any of the Henry colourways. It also asked for clarification of what brand name or other insignia would be used, as this would be relevant to an action in passing off. Robinsons responded on 28th February asking that Numatic should respond on the basis (a) that Qualtex uses the same or similar colourways and (b) that it does not. So far as insignia were concerned, the letter asked that Numatic should respond on the basis that entirely different brand name/insignia were to be used.
As the earlier letter had foreshadowed, on 19th March 2008 FJ Cleveland wrote asserting that Numatic was the owner of a valuable goodwill in the appearance of the Henry including its shape and get-up which it could protect by an action in passing off. They made the position plain in the following way:
“The appearance of the Henry is, quite simply, iconic. It is probably the most distinctive and recognisable vacuum cleaner on the market. Such distinctiveness and recognisability resides in a number of features, including the “bowler hat” shape on the cylindrical base, the “smiley face” graphics and the red and black colourways. Our client instructs us that the basic shape and appearance has not changed over the years and that, whilst the majority of the sales have been in the red/black colourway, it has been sold in various other colourways””
The letter made it clear that Numatic were not prepared to answer on the basis of any hypothetical insignia or branding and repeated a request made earlier for a mock up or prototype. Numatic therefore asked for undertakings not to market the product.
Via Class 99.