Two states, one brand: how Kerala won battle against Karnataka for KSRTC trademark

After a seven-year legal battle for the trademark, Kerala claims it has been given the right to use the abbreviation KSRTC. Karnataka has said it has not yet received the order. What now?

For decades, the neighbouring states of Kerala and Karnataka have used the same abbreviation for their respective State Road Transport Corporations — KSTRC. After a seven-year legal battle for the trademark, Kerala has announced that the Trade Marks Registry’s final verdict on Wednesday gave it the right to use the abbreviation KSRTC, its emblem, and even the nickname ‘Anavandi’, which means elephant vehicle.

Karnataka has said it has not yet received the order and that it is exploring legal options.

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Side by side

In Kerala, the erstwhile Travancore State Transport Department was re-established as Kerala State Road Transport Corporation on April 1, 1965. And in Karnataka, the Mysore Government Road Transport Department (MGRTD), started in 1948, became Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation in 1973.

The Kerala RTC is the state’s largest public sector employer, with 28,000-odd permanent employees and 38,000-odd pensioners (2020). But trade unionism and mismanagement have caused it major losses. The previous LDF government spent Rs 5,000 crore in five years to meet salary and pension bills.

The two RTCs have been operating services to each other’s states for decades. They use the same space for parking, operations and booking offices.

How trademarks are registered

The Office of the Controller General of Patents, Design and Trade Marks is the apex body in charge of supervising the working of regulations related to patents and trademarks and advising the government on these matters. It comes under the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade.

The Controller General heads the offices of the Trade Marks Registry, created to administer the Trade Marks Act, 1999. While the Controller General functions as the Registrar, from time to time, he can assign this function to other officers. The current Controller General is DPIIT joint secretary Rajendra Ratnoo, given this role as an additional charge.

How Kerala won

In 2014, Karnataka State RTC applied for registration of the KSRTC trademark with the office of the Trade Mark Registrar, in Chennai. After getting it registered, it served a notice to the Kerala RTC against the use of the trademark. The Kerala RTC approached the state Trade Mark Registrar, which pointed out the name has already been registered by the Karnataka RTC.

Kerala eventually won by relying on Section 34 of the Trade Mark Acts deals with the “first user” rule. It provides that a proprietor of a trademark does not have the right to prevent the use by another party of an identical or similar mark where that user commenced prior to the user or date of registration of the proprietor. As Kerala RTC was the first user (from 1965), it got the right established to use that trade mark.

Kerala RTC furnished photographs of old buses, bus depots, pages from memoirs of former Transport Ministers, write-ups and reports. Among the evidence presented was visuals from a Malayalam film of 1969, Kannur Deluxe, showing a KSRTC (Kerala) bus plying between Kannur and Thiruvananthapuram.

What now

Kerala Transport Minister Antony Raju’s office issued a press statement saying the Registrar of Trademarks has ruled in the Kerala RTC’s favour. On Friday, Karnataka SRTC issued a statement, saying the “reports are factually incorrect as we have not received any such notice or order from the Central Trade Mark Registry as claimed until today”.

Karnataka Deputy Chief Minister and Transport Minister Laxman Savadi said: “Without any notice from the Controller General of Patents Design and Trade Marks we can’t go ahead with Kerala’s claim. We will discuss with our KSRTC legal team and explore all possibilities.”

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