TIMAH

Does Malaysia have laws to nix ‘offensive’ brand names or ones that cause ‘public anxiety’? Lawyers explain

I was asked by The Malay Mail to give my thoughts on the issue of the word TIMAH by a local whisky brand. The Government has asked the brand owner to consider to change its brand name in view of the alleged public outcry over the use of a Malay word for an alcoholic product. I said-

How companies could navigate the use of brand names

Foong Cheng Leong, who is also a co-chair of the Bar Council’s Intellectual Property Committee, told Malay Mail: “Businesses in Malaysia are generally free to use whatever brand name they want on their goods and services so long that, among others, it is not a brand name of another person or a confusingly or deceptively similar one, or a false trade description.

“For certain industries, prior approval is required from local government/agencies. For example, a name of a property development would need approval from the local council,” he said, adding that he is not aware of any name approval requirement for alcoholic products.

Foong also noted that a trademark could still be used even if it is not registered, noting that the registration of a brand name with MyIPO “is merely a process to protect the mark from being infringed by a third party”.

“MyIPO has the right to object to the registration of a mark that is offensive or scandalous, or against morality, among others. However, the non-registration of a trademark does not prohibit the use of a trademark. The effect is only that they do not get protection under the Trademarks Act 2019,” he said.

“When it comes to using a name that could cause fear or alarm to the public or against public tranquility, Section 505(b) of the Penal Code may be relevant. However, I am not aware of this section being used against anyone using a brand name that has caused public anxiety.

“A use of a brand name is a commercial decision. One would use a name that would attract customers and certainly not a name to cause public anxiety,” he added.

Section 505(b) covers the crime of making, publishing, circulating any statement, rumour or report with intention to cause or which is likely to cause fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public where any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state, or with such statements being against public tranquility.

When asked if companies should avoid using the Malay language altogether for brand names to avoid possibly causing public anxiety in Malaysia (including in the context of race and religion), Foong replied: “There is no issue in the use of Malay words as a brand name. Many Malaysians are proud to use Malay words as their brand name to show that their goods and services are from Malaysia.”

“However, the Timah case has shown us that there is a limitation to such use. It seems to me that it is not so much on Muslims being confused but rather the use of Malay words on products prohibited by religion e.g. alcoholic products. I do not think that there is an express prohibition by law on this.

“But historically, there had always been a prohibition on use of religious words or words which connotes religious meaning on all forms of publication.

“Nevertheless, I think brands would now need to rethink their strategy, especially when using local names on products which are prohibited for consumption by religion or custom,” he said.

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