| Virginia House: No smoke alarms now
Calcutta, July 1: ITC is test marketing a new brand of cigarettes — Wills Silk Cut. Virginia House claims to own the brand.
However, Silk Cut is a brand owned by the UK-based tobacco companies, Gallaher Group plc and British American Tobacco plc, which raises the spectre of a trademark dispute for the Calcutta-based tobacco maker.
A spokesman for Gallaher Group told The Telegraph over the phone from England that it owned the Silk Cut brand, but had sold out the trademark for the Indian market to British American Tobacco (BAT) in the mid-nineties. “BAT should consider whether ITC was infringing on its rights by claiming to own the brand,” he added.
BAT is the single largest shareholder in ITC with a 33 per cent stake. BAT officials said the company owned the ‘Silk Cut’ trademark in most markets except the European Union. BAT identifies ITC as an associate.
A spokeswoman for BAT refused to comment on whether ITC could legitimately claim ‘Wills Silk Cut’ as its own brand.
An ITC spokesperson said the company will not speak on a product it is test marketing.
Senior lawyers with specialisation in trademarks say ITC has, in all likelihood, registered ‘Wills Silk Cut’ as a different brand, though it could face a legal challenge for ripping off someone else’s brandname.
“Registering a trademark takes more than three years. Each application is published in the Trademark Journal for the notice of trademark attorneys. Even companies that do not operate in India engage trademark attorneys to protect their trademarks here. Sometimes they would go to the extent of registering their trademarks for a range of products in India to pre-empt others from using it,” said a senior trademark attorney.
“It appears that in this case neither Gallaher nor BAT resisted the registration of Wills Silk Cut as an ITC trademark. Though they have not opposed the registration of the trademark, they could dispute the legitimacy of ITC’s claims to the trademark even now,” the attorney said.
“ITC must have registered the trademark many years ago. I doubt whether there’s any merit in opposing now,” said another attorney.
Senior ITC officials say the company owns a number of internationally known trademarks like ‘Silk Cut’ and ‘John Player’ for a range of products in India.
BAT and Gallaher are competitors in the UK, but they share rights for brands like Benson & Hedges and Silk Cut. In the recent past, there was a rumour in the UK that BAT was planning to acquire Gallaher.
Wills Silk Cut is being test marketed as an extension of an existing brand — Wills Navy Cut. Wills Silk Cut costs and measures the same as Wills Navy Cut. An ITC official explained that Wills had become “an umbrella brand” for the company. “Hence, Wills Insignia, Wills Gold Flake, Wills Classic... and now Wills Silk Cut.”
ITC produces Benson & Hedges and State Express 555 brands of cigarettes in India under a licence arrangement with BAT. Unlike Silk Cut, these do not sport the ‘Wills’ brand. ITC does not claim to own these brands either.
ITC recently launched yet another well-known international brand in India, but for a different product: readymade garments. It launched readymade garments under the ‘John Player’ label, which is a well-known smoking tobacco and cigarette brand.
Observers see the introduction of Wills Silk Cut as an attempt to build on the Wills Navy Cut, which is one of ITC’s highest selling brands of cigarettes.