Judge criticises educational charities that spent £400k in trademark dispute

NOCN successfully argued that the logo of OCN Credit4Learning was too close to its own, but failed to convince the court that the latter could not use the letters OCN

The logos that sparked the dispute
The logos that sparked the dispute

A judge has criticised two educational charities, NOCN and OCN Credit4Learning for spending a total of more than £400,000 in legal fees on a trademark dispute that he said could have been settled out of court.

A recent judgment from the Intellectual Property Enterprise Court, part of the High Court, shows that NOCN successfully argued that OCN’s logo was too similar to its own, but failed to convince the judge that it should not be able to use the OCN abbreviation.

The money spent on the case should have been used on the charities’ "laudable" causes rather than the case, said the judgment of Judge Hacon, who presided over the case in July.

NOCN, formerly the National Open College Network, was founded in 1987 as a membership body to coordinate the activities of local open college networks that provide qualification frameworks and accreditation for adult learners in colleges and the workplace.

OCN Credit4Learning was formed by the merger of several NOCN members, and it left NOCN in 2006.

In court, NOCN argued that OCN Credit4Learning should no longer be allowed the use the letters "OCN" in its name and logo, and that doing so was an attempt by OCN Credit4Learning to pass itself off as related to NOCN, and thus benefit from the public goodwill attached to the name.

It also argued that the series of circles arranged in a swoosh shape in OCN Credit4Learning’s logo was too similar to the solid swoosh in its own.

The judge ruled that the OCN letters were "purely descriptive" because they were abbreviations of open college network, so their use could not be considered passing off, and that the goodwill associated with OCN was likely to be attached to regional networks, not to NOCN specifically.

But he said the swoosh mark was a copyright infringement that "constituted a misrepresentation that the defendant was associated in the course of trade with the claimant" and should be changed.

In a postscript to the judgment, Hacon added a final observation in which he said: "I now know that between them the parties, both charities, have incurred well over £400,000 on fees in this litigation."

He noted that the two parties had failed to take up "a very strong recommendation to settle" at a case management conference.

"The laudable cause of encouraging adult education will presumably have to endure an equivalent cut in funding solely because this dispute was not resolved at an early stage," he said. "Such an outcome is much to be regretted."

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