OBSERVATIONS ON COMPANY NAMES

OBSERVATIONS ON COMPANY NAMES

Choosing a name for your new company may seem simple, but what may not be clear is that you cannot call your company whatever you want, as South African law regulates what a company name can and cannot be. Section 11 of the Companies Act, 71 of 2008 (“the Companies Act“) sets out the criteria for company names. In essence, the name of your company may comprise of words in any language together with any words or letters / numbers / symbols and / or punctuation marks. However, the name of your company may not be the same (or similar to) the name of another company or close corporation, someone else’s defensive name (a name registered up to two years which is aimed at preventing trade marks from being included in the new company name), business name or registered trademark or a mark on any merchandise. Your company name must not falsely imply that the company is part of any other person / entity, is an organ of state, is owned by a person having any particular educational designation, who is a regulated person or is owned by any government or international organisation. Importantly, your company name must not include anything that may constitute propaganda for war, incitement of imminent violence or advocacy of hatred against any right entrenched in the Bill of Rights.

Registered vs trading names:

The registered name of a company is the name which has been reserved, approved and then registered with the Companies and Intellectual Property Commission (“the CIPC“). In terms of the Companies Act, a company is required to display its registered name (and registration number) on all forms, notices and correspondence with others and failure to do so constitutes an offence.

Despite that, it is common practice for entrepreneurs to acquire shelf companies or to register a company with a non-distinctive name and to simply trade under a different name. Although a trade name does not need to be registered, the assumption is that a reasonable level of investigation would have been conducted to ensure that a trade name is not already in use. In reality, this often leads to the infringement of third party trademarks or causes confusingly similar names to exist.

For the above reason, the Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008 (“the CPA“) has introduced changes to the way in which “trading as” names (which the CPA calls “business names“) may be used. The provisions relating to business names are contained in sections 79 to 80 of the CPA, and will only come into effect upon a date to be determined by the Minister of Trade and Industry (“the Minister“) and published in the Gazette. This has not happened yet, but it is likely that when it does, the Minister will allow a certain amount of time after the published date for companies to comply with these new provisions.

The intention of the legislature in this regard, is to seek to enforce the consumer’s right to information concerning suppliers. The aim is to prevent a situation where a business would trade under one name but fail to disclose the identity of the actual entity behind the transactions, thereby frustrating the attempts by the consumers to seek redress in pursuing the correct entity.

What you need to know and the CPA’S requirements

In terms of section 79 of the CPA:

A person must not carry on business, advertise, promote, offer to supply or supply any goods or services, or enter into a transaction or agreement with a consumer under any name except:

  • the person’s full name as:
  • recorded in an identity document or any other recognised identification document, in the case of an individual; or
  • registered in terms of a public regulation, in the case of a juristic person; or
  • a business name registered to, and for the use of, that person in terms ofsection 80, or any other public regulation.

What the above means is that an individual or company (as the case may be) may not operate / carry on business with a business name unless it is registered in terms of the CPA. This information will then be publicly available on the business names register as maintained by the CIPC. The implication is that, should any business operate with any other name other than those as set out in section 79, the National Consumer Commission (“the NCC“) can issue a compliance notice and failure to comply will result in a fine or prosecution as a criminal offence.

As some assurance, however, the CPA provides a certain degree of relief for businesses which have been in trade before the business name provisions come into force – the NCC may not enforce the business name requirements against a business if it has been trading under the business name for a period of at least one year.

Procedure

Section 80 of the CPA provides for the procedure in registering the business name of a company. As mentioned before, these provisions are not yet in force since the business names registry and the registration process have not yet been established.

When the provisions come into force, a person may file a notice with the CIPC to register any number of business names currently used by your entities. If the business, under which the business name has been registered does not carry on business for a period exceeding 6 (six) months, the CIPC reserves the right to cancel such business name.

Possible difficulties

These provisions may cause difficulties for franchises because there are normally multiple franchisees trading under the same name as the franchisor. However, the registered name for each franchisee, may be completely different. The new requirements therefore force each separate franchisee to register the same business name leading to multiple entries of the same name being reflected on the records of the CIPC. This could be somewhat counter-intuitive since the confusion that it creates may defeat the purpose of the consumers’ right to information in the first place. Furthermore, franchisors may not be happy allowing each and every franchisee incorporating what is effectively their “trade mark” as the franchisees business names.

Going forward

Although these provisions have not come into effect yet, in the interests of avoiding the rush of changing branding and registering new names at the CIPC, the provisions above should be duly considered when choosing a business name as the criteria will most likely need to be adhered to in the near future.

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