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Pas Français, Pas Bon: Fresh Language Struggles in Quebec

Source: Grill IP patents news

Quebec-langauge-amendmentsCompanies in Quebec face a fresh struggle over language laws. The government of the French-speaking Canadian province is trying yet again to make French more prominent in daily life, with new legislation that seeks to outlaw company signage and trademarks that do not have a “sufficient presence” of French. If the law is passed, affected companies would have three years to change their insignia. It’s yet another attempt by the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF) to oblige retailers to use French wording on display advertising and other signage. Just last year, the Quebec Court of Appeal found that the OQLF’s interpretation of the laws on displaying non-French signs had no legal basis.

The Quebec government has now made amends and proposed a different set of changes to the Regulation respecting the language of commerce and business as part of the Charter of the French Language. These proposals would affect all companies operating in Quebec with non-French trademarks that advertise themselves on building exteriors, billboards (and suchlike) and interior façades. The new regulation is designed to ensure a “sufficient presence” of French, wherever a trademark appears in a “language other than French.” The required presence of French can be achieved by adding a generic French term that describes the goods or services on offer, or by displaying a French slogan or suchlike that tells consumers about the products or services being marketed. The regulations have some degree of flexibility, though. The proposed amendments to the law leave it open as to what constitutes a “language other than French.” Coined words, prevalent in a province like Quebec, leave room for interpretation by businesses forced to alter their signage.

The proposals are clearly a response to a ruling by Quebec’s Superior Court on how the OQLF interpreted the 2011 Charter, which required that generic French terms supplement English trademarks on public displays. The Superior Court had sided with a group of retailers, who wanted to keep their signage free of French descriptors. An appeal was made by Quebec’s Attorney General, which was dismissed in April of last year. The Attorney General decided against seeking leave to appeal to the Canadian Supreme Court, with whom Quebec has had a tumultuous linguistic history.

The government seems to implicitly acknowledge that Charter protection is inadequate to safeguard the province’s French presence. Whether or not this fear is legitimate remains to be seen. The new set of proposals would increase French content on public displays and advertising. At face value that’s not a bad thing, even if it inconveniences companies whose corporate slogans do not include any French, but who already altered other signage to comply with prior requirements. However, the Court’s previous decisions favoring non-French companies, there is a good chance that the new amendments will also be challenged by companies operating in Quebec.

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