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Law for Business

Knowhow - guidance - precedents

22 OCT 2015

Is your family name your business name?

Is your family name your business name?
Paula Williams
Senior Associate (solicitor and registered trade mark attorney), Veale Wasbrough Vizards

Where a family business uses the family name 'over the door', the name will become synonymous with the business, its reputation and its goodwill.

The family name will also have a strong emotional attachment for the family members, who will fight to protect the name and its goodwill from any potential damage.

In this article, we examine the unregistered trade mark issues that can arise in relation to a family business' name.

Passing off

A family business trading under the family name should, over time, build up a significant reputation and goodwill in that name.

Family businesses must protect this goodwill from competitors that may seek to obtain an unfair commercial advantage by 'passing off'. Passing off occurs when a business makes a misrepresentation (intentionally or unintentionally) that is likely to confuse the public, causing damage to the family business. For example, if you were to set up a shoe shop under the name 'Clark's Shoes', that business could cause damage to C&J Clark's longstanding 'Clarks' footwear family business in a number of ways:

  • by confusing the public that the business is associated with Clarks
  • by poaching customers from Clarks
  • by damaging the reputation of Clarks by selling poor quality footwear
What if the competing business is a family business trading under its family name?

In some instances, the competing business may be trading under its owner's family name. There is a very limited defence to passing off in this situation, which is only available if:

  • the business does not do anything (other than using the family's own name) to cause confusion
  • the name is used honestly
As a result, the circumstances in which this defence may be used are limited.

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What if a dissenting family member sets up a rival business under the same name?

A 2004 case involving Sir Robert McAlpine Limited and Alfred McAlpine plc provides a good example of how to prevent this.

In 1935, Alfred McAlpine left the McAlpine family construction business, Sir Robert McAlpine Limited, and started his own construction business, Alfred McAlpine plc. The companies co-existed, fairly peacefully, until 2003 when Alfred McAlpine plc re-branded itself 'McAlpine'. Sir Robert McAlpine Limited claimed that this was passing off.

Although both companies acknowledged that goodwill in the name 'McAlpine' was jointly owned, the judge concluded that Alfred McAlpine's use of 'McAlpine' misrepresented that Sir Robert McAlpine Limited and Alfred McAlpine plc were connected, or that Alfred McAlpine plc solely owned that goodwill. The court, placing great emphasis on the use of the distinguishing prefixes 'Alfred' and 'Robert', granted an injunction to prevent Alfred McAlpine plc from trading solely under the name 'McAlpine'.

What if the family business is sold? Can the family continue to use its own name for a competing business?

When the family business is sold, the sale agreement will include covenants preventing the seller from using its own name in competition for a specified period. Even after these covenants have expired, the seller can be prevented from using his own name in competition, and so this should be avoided.

How can family businesses protect the family name?

The most effective way of protecting a family business' name is to register it as a trade mark in the key territories in which it markets, or intends to market, its goods or services. A trade mark registration provides a right to stop anyone else using a confusingly similar mark for similar goods or services.