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Royal Mint Tastes Defeat in ‘Sovereign’ Trade Mark Dispute

In a case of interest to brand managers and intellectual property specialists – and coin collectors – the Royal Mint has failed to convince the High Court that it should be granted a UK monopoly on the use of the word ‘sovereign’.

Sovereigns, which have a face value of £1 but sell for a great deal more than that, were first struck in 1489, during the reign of Henry VII. However, since 2009, they have been minted in India under licence from The Royal Mint Limited (RML), a private company wholly owned by the Treasury. RML sought to register the word ‘sovereign’ as a trade mark but faced opposition from a company that trades in commemorative coins from around the world.

In refusing RML’s application, a hearing officer appointed by the Intellectual Property Office noted that coins described as sovereigns are struck by a number of countries, including British Overseas Territories and Commonwealth nations. The officer found that the word ‘sovereign’ had not acquired a distinctive character. A sovereign was a denomination of legal tender and the word did not distinguish coins from a particular source.

In dismissing RML’s challenge to that decision, the Court could find no fault in the officer’s approach. It rejected arguments that, due to its statutory monopoly on the production and issue of gold sovereigns in the UK, the word ‘sovereign’, used on its own, must be distinctive of coins produced by RML.