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What You Need to Know About Trademark Use and the Charter of the French Language in Quebec

By: Annette Latoszewska | Last updated: July 20, 2022
If you’ve ever visited the province of Quebec, you may have noticed the glaring predominance of the French language on everything from billboards to products in stores. While most often these billboard and products include both of Canada’s official languages, it’s the French language that tends to catch the eye first. This is no accident. The commercial use of the French language in Quebec is governed by a key piece of legislation: the Quebec Charter of the French Language. The Charter was adopted nearly half a century ago to protect the status of the French language in Quebec. It sets out rules relating to, among other things, a consumer’s right to be served in French, access to English-language schools in the province, as well as rules governing correspondence between employers and employees. In addition to the foregoing are a number of rules governing the use of the French language on signs, brochures, and product packaging among others. It is these rules we’ll focus on in this article.

Many of the rules governing the commercial use of the French language in Quebec are drafted to require that French be available on similar terms, or be just as pronounced, as English, however, there are also many rules which dictate that French be “markedly predominant”. Before looking at the individual rules then, to be able to assess compliance with these rules, it is critical to understand what is meant by “markedly predominant”.

Thankfully, the government recognized the importance of clearly defining what satisfies this requirement and enacted the very appropriately named “Regulation defining the scope of the expression “markedly predominant” for the purposes of the Charter of the French language, CQLR c C-11, r 11”. The regulation serves to clarify what is required to comply with this requirement in a few distinct circumstances. Perhaps the most commonly encountered is where texts in “both French and in another language appear on the same sign or poster” (as compared to separate posters, of identical or of different sizes). In this scenario, the text in French is considered “markedly predominant” if:

  1. the space allotted to the text in French is at least twice as large as the space allotted to the text in the other language;
  2. the characters used in the text in French are at least twice as large as those used in the text in the other language; and
  3. the other characteristics of the sign or poster do not have the effect of reducing the visual impact of the text in French.

Note that these requirements are additive, and all three must be satisfied.

Now that you have a sense of what is meant by the phrase “markedly predominant” you can more easily evaluate your obligations under the Charter.

Some of the key provisions of the Charter governing the commercial use of the French language can be summarized as follows:

Text on a product, its packaging or any document supplied with the product must be in French

This provision applies to, for example, bottles of moisturizer, the cardboard packaging within which each bottle is packaged, and the directions for use, if any, supplied with the bottle within the cardboard packaging. While translations into other languages are permitted in each case, these translations cannot be more prominent than the French text. An interesting exception to this provision exists for inscriptions on tires, of all things, which may be exclusively in a language other than French.

A much more meaningful exception, with wider application, is that for trademarks. As of today, a trademark does not need to be in French so long as a French version has not been registered. This exception shows up several times in the Charter and regulations. Up until recently, it was understood to mean any trademark, registered or unregistered, but following the enactment of Bill 96 on June 1, 2022, this will soon no longer be the case.

As of June 1, 2025, this trademark exception will be narrowed to only apply to registered trademarks. Meanwhile, the exception to the exception (for marks which have registered French versions) will be broadened to require instead that “no corresponding French version appears in the register”. This change would appear to require not only that no French version be registered but also that no French version be applied-for, since applications for trademarks also appear in the register. In other words, the circumstances in which businesses can use English on signage, products and commercial publications, among other things, are about to be substantially reduced.

In the interest of making compliance with the Charter more manageable, businesses operating in Quebec are encouraged to consider applying to register their English or other language trademarks today. Trademark registration can take years in Canada due to an overwhelming backlog of applications. As the above-mentioned changes are coming into effect in approximately three years, businesses may be able to avoid the time, energy and financial burden associated with compliance in the absence of a registered trademark by filing as soon as possible and, to the extent possible, filing applications consisting of pre-approved terms, which are generally processed faster by the Trademarks Office.

While trademark registration has always had many benefits and been highly recommended, the added benefit a registration will provide to businesses in Quebec as of June 1, 2025 makes the decision to apply for a trademark a no brainer. The cost of a trademark application is almost certain to be nominal compared to the cost of updating signage and inventory to comply with the new rules.

Brochures, catalogues and similar commercial publications including websites must be in French

Generally, brochures, catalogues and similar commercial publications must be in French, however, versions of these publications can be made available in other languages as long as the French version is as accessible as and of equal quality to the non-French version. In other words, a website can’t have, for example, dozens of pages and resources in its English version and only a few key pages in its French version.

Here again, until June 1, 2025, a trademark can be exclusively in a language other than French unless a French version has been registered. As of June 1, 2025, this exemption will be modified as described above.

Public signs and commercial advertising must be in French

Public signs and commercial advertising must either be exclusively in French, or, two languages including French can be used, but the French text must be “markedly predominant”.

Notably, this rule doesn’t apply to advertising in news media that is published in a language other than French, for example, if an advertisement were to be published in The Suburban, Quebec’s largest English weekly newspaper, that advertisement could be entirely in English.

While there are exceptions which allow the exclusive display of a language other than French there are also exceptions which further favour French. The Regulation respecting the language of commerce and business, CQLR c C-11, r 9, for example, creates an exception to the rule which permits the use of both French and another language in the case of advertising on billboards, signs, posters or on any other medium having an area of 16 m2 or more and visible from any public highway. In these cases, the advertising must be exclusively in French unless the advertising is displayed on the very premises of an establishment of the firm. In other words, a billboard advertising McDonalds’ newest source of saturated fats, seen by drivers on the A-10 between Montreal and Sherbrooke, Quebec, must be exclusively in French unless it is located on McDonald’s own property.

An exception also applied to commercial advertising on or in any public means of transportation and on or in the accesses thereto, including bus shelters, which must be exclusively in French.

Further, as is the case with brochures and inscriptions above, the trademark exception applies to permit the use of a non-French trademark subject to the conditions already discussed.

That being said, an additional limitation applies to use on signage where the trademark is being displayed outside an immovable only in a language other than French. In that case a sufficient presence of French must also be ensured on the site, meaning French should be included in the form of: a. a generic term or a description of the products or services concerned; b. a slogan; or c. any other term or indication, favouring the display of information pertaining to the products or services to the benefit of consumers or persons frequenting the site.

And further, in order to be “sufficient” the presence of French should (1) give French permanent visibility, similar to that of the trademark displayed; and (2) ensure its legibility in the same visual field as that mainly covered by the trademark signs or posters.

Put plainly, a passerby should clearly see both the English and French without shifting their gaze.

Business names must be in French

This requirement may be one of the more straightforward and one of the easier requirements to comply with. This requirement is most easily satisfied by adding generic French components to non-French expressions – for example by adding the French words for “store” and/or “limited” (where applicable) to an English business name – for example, Magasins Game Stop (i.e., Game Stop stores). Further, a business name may be accompanied by a non-French version if the French version appears at least as prominently.

These are just some of the many requirements imposed on business operating in Quebec by the Charter. While compliance with these requirements is onerous in any event, it’s clear that compliance is made significantly less painful by virtue of the trademarks exception which, as seen above, reduces the compliance burden in many cases.

That being said, businesses that have been relying on their unregistered trademark rights to justify the form of their signage, product inscriptions and commercial publications to date should be mindful of the impending June 1, 2025 deadline. It may very well be that if changes aren’t made to these materials before June 1, those businesses, no longer able to rely on the trademark exception, will be in violation of the Charter. Penalties for violations include a fine of between $1,500 and $20,000 for a first violation by a business.

Consequently, businesses are urged to weight the benefits of registering their as-of-yet unregistered trademarks in view of the changes to the Charter and the potential costs of compliance once those changes come into effect. Further, businesses should be mindful of the backlog of trademark applications at the Canadian Intellectual Property Office and know that while June 1, 2025 is almost three years away, that may only be just enough time to register their marks.

To reduce the burden soon-to-be imposed by the new-and-improved Charter, businesses operating in Quebec should contact an experienced trademark agent today. An experienced trademark agent is key to registering a mark as soon as practicable.

If you’re likely to be affected by the changes to the Charter and have questions about registering your trademarks ahead of the coming-into-force date, contact us today for a complimentary 15-minute telephone appointment with a member of our team.