Jaguar Land Rover is seeking to trademark the shape of the Land Rover Defender amid attempts by billionaire owner of Ineos, Jim Ratcliffe, to release a similar vehicle.
Mr Ratcliffe, who founded the privately owned chemicals giant, has vowed to create a “spiritual successor” to the Defender following its withdrawal from production in January 2016.
This week he announced an intention to invest up to £600m to produce a new vehicle in 2020 that will contain “the DNA” of the rugged off-roader - a year after JLR’s replacement for the Defender is expected to be on the market.
Amid talk of a rival mimicking its most famous model, JLR has taken steps to protect its heritage. It filed five trademark applications between April and September 2016, seeking to protect the shape of vehicles from the original Land Rover, launched in 1948, right up to the most recent Defender model.
All five have been opposed by Ineos, according to public filings with the UK Intellectual Property Office.
In July last year, Mr Ratcliffe announced plans to resurrect the Defender, and said he was seeking to buy intellectual property from JLR if possible to help with the project. JLR refused to comment on whether it submitted its first trademark applications before or after Mr Ratcliffe’s approach.
JLR ceased production of the Defender in January 2016, saying it did not meet safety or environmental standards. A successful trademarking of the design by JLR could hinder Mr Ratcliffe’s ability to produce a car that echoes the Defender’s rugged looks.
Joel Smith, partner and trademark lawyer at Herbert Smith Freehills, said: "The question of whether a rival design infringes will depend on whether a member of the public looking at it, focusing on the design of the vehicle, would be confused that the new vehicle is the Defender, or its replacement, or is associated with it."
He said that European trademark law “has been reluctant to protect the shape of overall vehicles or parts of the body, unless the shape is genuinely distinctive”, but that the Defender’s “iconic” body would make it particularly difficult to replicate without the serious risk of infringing a trademark.
JLR said: “Defender will always be instantly recognisable as a Land Rover the world over. The Defender remains a key part of our current future product strategy.” It added: “We will monitor closely any actions in relation to our proprietary rights in Defender and will comment when appropriate.”
Critics of Mr Radcliffe’s scheme have already questioned the ability of Ineos, a group predominantly focused on chemicals, to break into the fiercely competitive automotive world, where product design and development costs can soar into billions for a single vehicle.
By Christmas the newly formed Ineos Automotive team will have about 200 engineers, working mainly in Germany, as well as a design team based in the UK, according to Mr Ratcliffe.
Mr Ratcliffe insisted the scheme would be profitable within three years of production, beginning with plans to sell 25,000 vehicles a year for about £35,000 each. “You don’t spend £600m on a nostalgic dalliance,” he said.
- (c) 2017 The Financial Times Limited