On April 9, 2014, by declaratory judgment in Magasins Best Buy ltée c. Québec (Proceur Général), the Quebec Superior Court held the use of English-only registered trademarks in commercial storefront signage did not need to be accompanied by a French descriptive wording to satisfy the requirements of the Charter of the French Language (commonly referred to as the Language Charter).
To a large extent, this judgement has settled the uncertainty that had developed around a recent, narrow legal interpretation of the Language Charter by the Office Québécoise de la langue française (OLF) in reaction to an increasing number of foreign retailers—including franchisors—whose sales outlets were identified solely by English trademarks.
While the general rule is for all commercial signage and advertisements to be expressed in French, the Language Charter provides a notable exemption permitting the use of English-only trademarks where no French versions have been registered pursuant to the Trade-marks Act. The court confirmed the text of this exemption—set out in Section 25(4) of the regulation respecting the language of commerce and business—is clear and not subject to any limitation in its application.
Q: How will this judgment affect franchise systems and, in particular, how franchisees go about their business?
The judgment should help convince foreign franchisors to look toward Quebec as they expand their businesses. Consistency in the applicability of the law is essential for these companies and other foreign retailers who have devoted significant resources to the development of their brands.
The judgment also restores a level of certainty for those retailers and franchisors that are already doing business in Quebec. It will make them more comfortable to use their trademarks uniformly across Canada and the U.S.
Franchisees who are already integrated in systems within Quebec will benefit from the judgment, as it confirms their ability to exploit the full potential of English-only trademarks, while avoiding the disbursement of renovation expenses to install new signage.
From a practical point of view, subject to business decisions concerning cultural issues when using English-only brands, the judgment will reassure those retailers and franchisors that have made a practice of not registering French versions of recognized trademarks so as to benefit from the aforementioned exemption.