No winners in Han's Cafe vs HAN Cuisine legal battle

Exterior of Han's Cafe at Pickering Street on April 8, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
Exterior of Han's Cafe at Pickering Street on April 8, 2014. -- ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

It was win some, lose some for each side in a court showdown over the use of “Han” on Singapore’s restaurant scene.

Well-known chain Han’s Cafe failed in its bid to stop HAN Cuisine of Naniwa, a high-end Japanese restaurant, from using a similar name.

But the owners of HAN Cuisine also failed to have the Court erase “Han’s Cafe” as a registered trademark. They argued that Han is a common surname here.

Judicial Commissioner George Wei disagreed with HAN, ruling that a name or part of it can be recognised as a trade mark.

“The fact that Han is a surname does not mean that, as a matter of principle, it must be treated as being devoid of a distinctive character” said JC Wei in his 81-page judgment grounds released yesterday.

The judge accepted that Han seemed a fairly common surname in China, Korea and Japan and that it was, taken on its own, not distinct enough to satisfy trade mark registration rules. 

But the unique style and font used by the chain, including its framed outline, were enough to make it sufficiently unique.

He also found that Han’s was a local brand which has grown familiar to many Singaporeans since being founded in 1980.

Han’s Cafe owners had alleged that HAN Cuisine of Naniwa, which opened in June 2012 at Odeon Towers, had infringed its trademark and passed off its business as part of Han’s Cafe’s.

HAN Cuisine, owned by home-grown Gusttimo World, which also runs the Pinch catering service, offers traditional Osaka-based Naniwa cuisine and its specialities include meat and vegetable skewers.

Lawyer Mark Goh argued for Han’s Cafe that the Japanese restaurant’s name was visually, phonetically and conceptually similar to his client's own trademark.

But HAN’s lawyer Suresh Damodara disputed this, pointing out the cuisine and character of both restaurants were vastly different.

Han’s Cafe is a self-service low cost Hainanese Western restaurant, while HAN Cuisine is a full-service fine dining Japanese restaurant which also sells champagne and other high-end liquor, he said.

JC Wei ruled that the HAN sign needs to be considered “in its entirety”, and that includes the addition of the phrase “Cuisine of Naniwa” and the Japanese-styled circle around the words.

When treated as a whole, the similarity between the names was marginal. There was also no likelihood of people confusing between the two brands.

“The average consumer who approaches the (HAN Cuisine) restaurant and observes the HAN sign that is applied at various positions in and around the restaurant,would be disabused of any notion that there is an economic connection between (Han’s Cafe)’s goods and services and those of (HAN Cuisine),” the judge said.

vijayan@sph.com.sg