October 2019. The collapse of the venerable UK travel operator Thomas Cook is a sad and sorry tale. But the news puts us in mind of an unusual trademark dispute a little under 20 years ago between the company and the European Commission, after Thomas Cook thought it had hit on a winning formula by registering a trademark that turned out to be very similar to the euro currency symbol.
Left: the euro currency symbol from 1996; right: the trademark registered by Thomas Cook in 1993
When the new euro currency symbol, designed by Belgian Alain Billiet, was presented to the citizens of Europe by the European Commission on 12 December 1996, senior executives at Thomas Cook rubbed their eyes in disbelief. Wasn’t the new symbol practically identical to a trademark they’d already registered in 1993?
According to the travel operator, this rendered the older trademark, which it had registered for financial services, worthless since consumers would now simply associate it with the euro. Discussions with the European Commission came to nothing, however, and Thomas Cook duly began legal proceedings.
Thomas Cook’s claim for damages – £25 million – was no mean sum, especially as the company argued that the Commission should have done its homework before launching the currency symbol. Fortunately for the Commission, however, Thomas Cook demanded only compensation, not a complete ban on the euro symbol being used!
Thomas Cook: no British pounds and no golden euros
The proceedings ended in debacle for Thomas Cook. It lost the case after the Court found that the euro symbol was not used as a trademark for financial services. The judgement concluded that it was merely a sign used to designate the new European currency and couldn’t therefore be overturned by a trademark registration. The outcome meant a costly legal bill for Thomas Cook and no £25 million in the bank.
It’s odd, though, that the European Commission introduced the euro symbol without carrying out a preliminary legal search. A simple check would easily have brought up the Thomas Cook trademark, and the two entities could then have come to a mutual agreement. But of course, all that’s now water under the bridge in view of the dramatic demise of Thomas Cook.