Byline: Katie Pratt

PARIS — In the highly competitive market for designer fragrances imitation is not the highest form of flattery.
The striking similarities between fragrances have led more than one brand to court. In a case pending in French commercial courts, Parfums Thierry Mugler has charged that Nirmala, a fragrance developed by the French company Molinard, is a copy of its women’s scent Angel.
Now Yann Kerlau, a former director of legal affairs for Parfums Yves Saint Laurent, who handled the trademark dispute over Champagne, is proposing a new system to trademark the actual scent of a fragrance product. Although it is already possible to protect packaging and product names, there is no way to register smells.
Kerlau and Pierre Breese, a cosmetics industry veteran, recently created the Institute for the Protection of Fragrances in Paris to launch their idea. They hope to begin registering scents in France by January 1998 and plan eventually to roll out their system to other European markets and to the U.S. In the past, the main obstacles to trademarking fragrances were the lack of a system to compare compositions and the reticence of perfumers to divulge their formulas.
Kerlau has devised and patented a computer program that works like an “electronic nose.” The program digitally maps an odor as a distinct graphic image without revealing its formula. The image can then be registered and trademarked under current laws.
The analysis costs $17,857 (100,000 francs), and Kerlau expects the system to be up and running by August. He is hoping to recruit 10 prestige fragrance brands, including at least one in the U.S., to launch the system.
The IPF plans eventually to expand its market to include other products such as skin care, detergents and foods.
Reached in New York for comment, Annette Green, president of the Fragrance Foundation, said, “That could be such a breakthrough for the industry.”
In the past, industry executives had sought ways to trademark fragrance compositions, to no avail. “There is no law allowing you to do that,” Green said, noting that every other element — the bottle, name and packaging — can be protected. But if a composition can be transformed into a graphic image, that is something else. “If you have an image, that can be patented,” Green said. “That is the best news I’ve ever heard.”

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