easyGroup, the company behind easyJet and other brands, has issued trade mark infringement proceedings in the UK High Court against indie pop group Easy Life.
Easy Life were formed in 2017 and have enjoyed growing success with both their albums reaching No. 2 in the UK album chart and winning the NME award for Best New British Act in 2020.
easyGroup has called the band's frontman Murray Matravers a "brand thief" and released a statement about the proceedings on their website here.
easyGroup is well-known for being very active in enforcing its rights in the UK. It is a prolific issuer of infringement proceedings and, as can be seen from its statement, is not afraid of taking a forceful stance. Many more cases settle before Court proceedings are started and therefore are not a matter of public record. Some of these may settle because easyGroup back down (this could be for various reasons, including because they have a weak claim or there are weaker commercial reasons for pursuing the claim in question). Some will be settled in favour of easyGroup, perhaps with an agreement to make ongoing payments to easyGroup in order to keep trading under whatever “easy”-formative name is being used in that case. Indeed, easyGroup sued a company called Easylife Limited (the operator of the easylife.co.uk retail website) back in 2021. EasyGroup lost that case. However, in an interesting turn of events, Easylife Limited is now, according to its website, “part of the easy family of brands” and the EASYLIFE trade mark registration is owned by easyGroup. easyGroup can therefore use the EASYLIFE trade mark and any reputation generated by Easylife Limited in its case against the band. Is it out of the question to wonder whether easyGroup acquired Easylife Limited and the EASYLIFE trade mark for the exact purpose of strengthening its case against the band?
easyGroup is relying on a number of trade marks in its claim against the band. The EASYLIFE trade mark as mentioned before, but also EASYJET, EASYMUSIC and a mark depicting the livery of an EasyJet aircraft. In order to succeed in its trade mark infringement claim easyGroup will need to show that the band are using an identical mark in respect of identical goods or services. Or that they are using an identical or similar mark in respect of similar services AND there exists a likelihood of confusion on the part of the public. Or that the band’s use of the name Easy Life, the picture of the aircraft etc takes unfair advantage of or is detrimental to the distinctive character or reputation of easyGroup’s trade marks.
Unfortunately for the band, easyGroup’s EASYLIFE trade mark is registered for certain retail services including of CDs and clothing. If the band have been selling, for example, T-Shirts, from an EASY LIFE-branded online store this could be a problem for their case. easyGroup is arguing that this constitutes use of an identical trade mark for identical services – this is the most straightforward type of trade mark infringement claim. In the alternative, in order to try to stop the band from retailing various goods, easyGroup are relying on similarity plus confusion, and detriment to reputation arguments. easyGroup has over 250 registered trade marks in the UK. It has tried to establish that it has an "easy" family of trade marks, and it has been accepted in recent cases that easyGroup can rely on that argument to some degree. This matters because, where a brand establishes that there is a family of marks and the alleged infringing sign (i.e. in this case, EASY LIFE) reproduces some elements of the "family", then the possibility of confusion is enhanced. However, easyGroup (in particular easyJet) is a brand whose goods and services have a strong and very distinct brand origin in the minds of consumers. Considering the defendant is an indie pop band, it is difficult to imagine any likelihood of consumers being confused as to the origin of the band’s merchandise. Would consumers purchasing a lighter (for example) really attribute that offering to easyGroup? These factors will present issues for easyGroup’s ‘confusion’ argument.
Even if easyGroup win in respect of retail of clothing (for example) that wouldn’t knock out the band’s ability to continue to perform music under the name Easy Life (although it may have a negative commercial impact). For this easyGroup claims that the band is taking unfair advantage of its EASYJET, EASYMUSIC and EasyJet Livery trade marks. easyGroup mentions that the band has used some EasyGroup imagery, such as a tour poster with a picture of an easyJet plane on it with the words changed to Easy Life. They say that the band knew that using such an image would capture the attention of consumers and doing this exploits the reputation of easyGroup’s trade marks in order to profit from that exploitation. easyGroup also zone in on some of the band’s behaviour in order to try to claim damage to the reputation of their trade marks. They say that the band’s use of swear words on merchandise and other “profane” on-stage behaviour tarnishes the reputation of the trade marks. However, is that really causing damage to easyGroup’s trade marks? In any event, to succeed on unfair advantage and/or damage to reputation grounds easyGroup still needs to show the signs being used by the band are identical or similar to the trade mark registrations being asserted. However, the band always seems to have been prominently using the Easy Life name, even in the poster with the image of the EasyJet plane. ‘Easy Life’ is not identical or similar to EASYJET, EASYMUSIC or the EasyJet Livery trade marks, so there are some hurdles for easyGroup to jump here.
It will be interesting to see what the band’s defence says when it is filed. A standard response to a trade mark infringement claim would be to challenge the validity of the trade marks being asserted by the claimant. One way the band can do this is to argue that easyGroup isn’t using the marks in respect of the goods or services for which they are registered. If the judge agrees, easyGroup could lose its trade mark registrations (in whole or in part) and therefore lose the infringement case. Indeed, easyGroup has been burnt in infringement proceedings before, losing registrations for trade marks such as easyLand, easy4men, easyOffice and easy (in respect of certain services for which it was not being used) in recent years.
For now, the band has done what anyone in their position in this day and age might reasonably do: take the matter to the court of public opinion. It is clear that the band’s artwork referencing EasyJet (for example) is tongue in cheek and the public are likely going to be on the band’s side, particularly as the people of X (formerly Twitter) love to hate big business. Ryanair, who has a famously humorous social media team, might have seen the funny side, so perhaps the band picked the wrong airline…
In all seriousness, this is a cautionary tale for people and brands who like to fly close to the sun with other brands’ imagery. In many circumstances it can be funny and accepted, if not appreciated, by the brand in question. If the judge decides the band were on the right side of the law in this case, then ultimately they prevail and the public will see that. But the band (or their label) would have spent (likely) years and a large amount of money to get that win. As such, there are commercial as well as legal reasons to proceed with caution. If in doubt, it is worth clearing your use of names and imagery with specialist IP counsel first.