Companies with ‘Royal’ in their name must watch out for name change

Edition 26 January, by Phoebe Potter

Permission from King needed

Following a definitive court case in The Hague, companies using the word ‘Royal’ in their name have come under scrutiny. A subdistrict court in The Hague ruled that the company ‘Royal Dutch Holding’ was operating under a misleading trade name as it had not been given permission from the King to use the title ‘Royal’. By using the word in a way that was creating a royal impression they put themselves at risk of having to change their company name. The use of the word is not completely banned for companies in the Netherlands, but strict rules govern the granting of its use by the King.

The lack of authorisation Royal Dutch Holdings had to use the name meant a case was brought against them by the Sigillis Regiis Praesidio Foundation. The foundation was set up in 2002 by Queen Beatrix to protect official symbols of the Royal House Oranje Nassau, and counter any commercial exploitation of the Royal family. With its name meaning ‘the protection of the Royal seals’ (when translated from the Latin) the foundation takes action most often at the request of the Van Oranje family, though it can act independently if it believes the copyright or trademark rights of the Royal family are infringed. The ruling, however, does not throw all companies with ‘Royal’ in the name into immediate risk. Tobias Cohen Jehoram – an expert in trademark and intellectual property rights, as well as the lawyer working for the foundation – said that they will always first try to seek an out of court solution, and it is only in the few cases where this is unsuccessful that the dispute will be taken to court. It is because of this that a court case such as this one is so unusual, despite the fact the ruling has been in place for over a century.

Well known ‘royal’ companies such as KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and Royal Dutch Shell are also not put at risk by this ruling. The honorary title of ‘Koninklijk/e’ or ‘Royal’ can be granted to an association, foundation, institution or large company by the ruling monarch, a tradition first introduced by Louis Bonaparte in 1807 (then the King of Holland), who awarded the title to cultural associations. If an institution adheres to strict criteria, which include such precedents as being significant in its field, having at least 100 employees and being demonstrably stable with a good financial reputation, they can be awarded the use of the title ‘Royal’. The company must also present itself clearly as a Dutch institution. Queen Wilhelmina, for instance, granted KLM (or ‘Koninlijke Luchtvaart Maatschaapij’) the use of its ‘Koninklijke’ predicate in September 1919, the year the company was established.

Royal Dutch Holding, in their defence in court, argued that the rights over the word ‘Koninklijk/e’ does not extend to its English translation of ‘Royal’. Despite the nationalist prestige attached to an award of the word ‘Koninklijk/e’ to a company name, this defence did not hold up in court, with the judge pointing to the pervasiveness of English in Dutch society. The judge ruled that the use of English language in the Netherlands is now so common and widespread that, when in combination with the word ‘Dutch’ there should be no distinction made between the use of the phrase ‘Royal Dutch’ and ‘Koninklijke Nederlandse’.