easyDispute over trade mark

My colleague Ed Weeks (on his Boardroom Disputes blog) has written a number of times over the past couple of years on the dispute between Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou and the easyJet board.

This dispute has now developed an intellectual property angle, with Sir Stelios threatening to terminate the airline’s licence to use the “easyJet” trade mark. The trade mark is owned by Sir Stelios’ company easyGroup IP Licensing Limited, and is licensed to easyJet Airline Company Limited under an agreement which Sir Stelios is now threatening to terminate.

easyGroup has issued a “cure notice” to easyJet threatening to terminate the licence agreement unless there is an improvement in easyJet’s punctuality record within the next 90 days. This follows newspaper reports that fewer than 50 per cent of easyJet flights from Gatwick were on time in June.

Should easyGroup proceed to terminate easyJet’s licence, the result would undoubtedly be a huge court battle, given the importance of the easyJet name for the airline. I doubt that the licence agreement contains an express right to terminate for poor punctuality performance: presumably easyGroup are relying on more general obligations, as typically found in trade mark licences, for the licensee to provide services under the licensed mark to a high standard and not to bring the trade mark (or its owners) into disrepute.

Given the risks to both sides of this course of action, I would be very surprised if the licence were terminated. More likely this is being used by Sir Stelios as leverage in his long-running battles with the easyJet board.

Sir Stelios’ ire has no doubt only been increased by the way in which his own personal name and image have been dragged into the controversy over easyJet’s punctuality (and its reluctance to release its performance figures) by easyJet’s main competitor, Ryanair. Ryanair apologised for its ads referring to him as “easy Jet’s Mr Late Again”, but its newspaper ads printing this apology provided another opportunity for it to take a dig at easyJet.

As a final observation, I notice that the Telegraph news item refers to Sir Stelios threatening to remove “the easy brand name”. easyGroup – which owns a large number of trade marks which include “easy” as a prefix – has made a number of attempts over the years to claim the name “easy” itself as a trade mark, without success. I wonder if easyGroup have taken the opportunity themselves to provide a small boost for their claim to “easy” as a brand name.

“I have read, understood and agree to… unfair treatment?”

Go to almost any website selling goods or services online, and at some point in the transaction process you are likely to find a statement along the following lines:

I confirm that I have read, understood and agree to the terms and conditions [link].

The FSA has released a guidance note (PDF) stating that, in their view, this declaration is “unfair” under the Unfair Terms in Consumer Contracts Regulations 1999 (“Unfair Terms Regulations”). As the FSA put it:

Firms should draft contracts in plain and intelligible language and must also give consumers a proper opportunity to read all the terms of the contract. Consumers should check the details of the contracts they enter into. But a contract term requiring consumers to declare that they have read and understood the terms of the contract is likely to be unfair because it binds customers to terms which, in practice, they may not have any real awareness of.

While this guidance relates specifically to financial services, it is consistent with the OFT’s guidance on consumer contracts generally. Online sellers, especially those dealing with consumers rather than business customers, should therefore consider wording along the lines of the FSA’s proposed alternative for such declarations. For an online seller this might read:

These are our standard terms and conditions [link] upon which we intend to rely. For your own benefit and protection you should read these terms carefully before signing them. If you do not understand any point please ask for further information.

Sellers should also ensure that they review their online consumer contracts carefully to ensure the terms themselves comply with the Unfair Terms Regulations. To assist in this, the OFT has produced a number of guidance documents. These include their Unfair Contract Terms Guidance (PDF) and its annexes giving specific examples of unfair terms (PDF), as well as specific guidance for a number of sectors.