It is quite common today for businesses to abbreviate their name to their initial letters.  The Trade Marks Office is willing to register combinations of three or more letters, provided that they are not a well-known acronym for the goods or services to be protected by the trade mark application (because other traders should be free to use that acronym).

However, if a business wants to be able to prevent other traders from using a similar trade mark for similar goods or services, a registered mark that comprises of only a few letters may provide quite narrow legal protection.

KFC v Grill’d

This happened to the KFC company (KFC Co), who opposed a trade mark application for HFC by rival restaurant business Grill’d (KFC v Grill’d).  HFC meant Healthy Fried Chicken.  KFC is an abbreviation of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Trade mark oppositions

After a trade mark application is accepted in Australia, there is a two-month period during which anyone who objects to the application can oppose its acceptance.  Oppositions are rare (about 2%) but do occur, especially if another business uses a similar mark.  Some companies monitor trade mark acceptances to see if anything has been accepted that they think might affect their trade mark rights.

A trade mark opposition is a bit like a mini-court case.  The party opposing the application sets out the grounds upon which they oppose the mark and then they file evidence supporting those claims.  The trade mark applicant can file evidence answering the claims.  Then the trade mark opponent has a further chance to file evidence in reply.  The Trade Marks Office can either decide the opposition “on the papers” or can hold a hearing (now normally online).  Then the Hearing Officer issues their written decision, which is what happened in the KFC v Grill’d case.

Not sufficiently similar

The Trade Marks Office Hearing Officer held that that HFC was not sufficiently similar to KFC.  Each letter of the two marks was pronounced separately and so the Hearing Officer considered that consumers were more likely to recall them. The concept behind the two was different – Kentucky vs Healthy. This is despite the fact that the application was for “HFC” alone and did not include the words ” Healthy Fried Chicken”.


The KFC mark was adopted in 1991 and enjoys a substantial reputation in Australia.  KFC Co argued that because of its reputation in KFC, use of HFC would be likely to cause confusion.  However, this substantial reputation actually worked against KFC Co because it meant that consumers were less likely to confuse KFC and HFC.

Bad faith

KFC Co also argued that Grill’d had adopted its mark in “bad faith” and relied on Grill’d’s use of other well-known elements of KFC Co branding – such as red and white stripes and using the phrase “finger lickin’ better”.  Grill’d defended this on the basis that this was comparative advertising – “a cheeky, parodic comparison” between the KFC Co’s fried chicken and Grill’d’s healthier alternative.  The Hearing Officer held that this was not “bad faith”, Grill’d’s HFC mark did not contain any KFC branding and, anyway, this use post-dated the filing date of Grill’d’s trade mark application.

Thus KFC Co failed in its attempt to prevent Grill’d from registering HFC.  The case illustrates the risk that a three-letter trade mark may only provide protection against an exact copy.

This article provides general information only and is not intended as legal advice specific to your circumstances.  Please seek the advice of a legal professional if you have any particular questions.

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