3 October 2022TrademarksStaff Writer

Unilever faces claims of ‘covert’ TM transfer

Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would stop selling its products in the West Bank | Unilever trying to sell business to Israeli licensee.

Ben & Jerry’s has claimed that its parent company Unilever “covertly” caused the transfer of the ice cream maker’s trademarks more than 20 years ago, amid a dispute over its business in Israel.

The ice cream brand filed an updated lawsuit in its clash against Conopco (a wholly-owned subsidiary of Unilever) on Friday, 30 September, alleging that it had only discovered the trademark transfer from recent court filings in the litigation.

Last year, Ben & Jerry’s announced that it would stop selling its products in the West Bank as it was inconsistent with its values. In response, Unilever launched a review of the Israeli business, which ultimately led to its decision to sell the business to Avi Zinger, the owner of Ben & Jerry’s current licensee for the region.

The Vermont-based ice cream maker then sued the Unilever subsidiary in July this year to try to block the sale of its business in Israel and the West Bank to Zinger.

One month later, a judge rejected the ice cream maker’s bid to immediately stop sales in Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Now, Ben & Jerrys has filed an updated lawsuit alleging that “mere months” after Ben & Jerry’s was acquired by Unilever, the conglomerate had caused the transfer of Ben & Jerry’s trademarks to Unilever NV. Unilever has now been added as a defendant to the litigation.

According to the suit, as part of a licensing agreement signed between Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever, the ice cream maker would retain ownership of its trademarks post-merger, allowing its independent board to serve as the “custodian” of the brand going forward.

Turning to the acquisition of the Israeli business, the lawsuit said: “To this day, however, defendants have failed to disclose to the independent board how much Ben & Jerry’s intellectual property was sold for, likely because of the embarrassingly low sum.”

Ben & Jerry’s said that Conocpo had disclosed the purported transfer of Ben & Jerry’s trademarks in Israel to Zinger in its legal filings.

"Conopco attached a copy of the business transfer agreement (with the price term redacted) that purportedly effected this transfer; a copy had never been provided to the independent board before that time,” said the suit.

It added that the transfer agreement also “purportedly obligates Ben & Jerry’s to transfer future intellectual property—including trade secrets, recipes, and ingredients—to Mr Zinger in contravention of the board’s authority”.

Ben & Jerry’s is seeking injunctive relief against Unilever and has asked the court to order Unilever to return all the trademarks that were transferred to Unilever NV (to the extent that they remain within the possession and control of UIP, Unilever NV’s successor, or its affiliates).

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