At the request of a number of industrial property offices of member countries of the Paris Union, the United International Bureaux for the Protection of Intellectual Property (BIRPI), predecessor of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), began working with a Committee of Experts set up in 1967 by the BIRPI Interunion Coordination Committee on the drafting of an international classification of the figurative elements of marks. The classification was finally established by an agreement concluded on June 12, 1973, at the Vienna Diplomatic Conference. The Vienna Agreement entered into force on August 9, 1985.
The purpose of the Classification is essentially to facilitate trademark anticipation searches and obviate substantial reclassification work when documents are exchanged at the international level. What is more, the countries party to the Vienna Agreement no longer need to draw up their own national classification or keep an existing one up to date.
Article 4 of the Vienna Agreement provides that, subject to the requirements prescribed by the Agreement itself, the scope of the Classification is that attributed to it by each of the contracting States, and that, in particular, the Classification does not bind those States in respect of the extent of the protection afforded to the mark.
The Classification constitutes a hierarchical system that proceeds from the general to the particular, dividing all figurative elements into categories, divisions and sections. Where appropriate, explanatory notes have been introduced. They concern either a category as a whole or any given division or section.
There are two kinds of sections: main and auxiliary sections. The latter are intended for figurative elements that are already covered by the main sections, but which it is considered useful to group according to a particular criterion for ease of anticipation searching.
Every category, division and section has been given a number according to a special coding system. Every figurative element in a section is referred to by three numbers: the first, which may be any number from 1 to 29, denotes the category; the second, which may be any number from 1 to 19, the division; and the third, which may be any number from 1 to 30, the section. For instance, the representation of "a little girl eating" belongs to Category 2 (Human beings), Division 5 (Children), Main Section 3 (Girls). If auxiliary sections are used, the figurative element can be identified additionally with the Auxiliary Section 18 (Children drinking or eating, code A 2.5.18). The codification of this example will be then indicated as follows: 2.5.3, 18.
The number of divisions and sections varies according to the categories and divisions to which they belong. Within the divisions and sections, certain numbers have been left vacant in order to permit the introduction of new divisions or sections when necessary.
The countries party to the Vienna Agreement may apply the Classification either as a principal or as a subsidiary system. Thus, they have the possibility of continuing to use their national classification at the same time as the Vienna Classification, either as a transitional or as a permanent measure.
The competent offices of countries party to the Vienna Agreement are obliged to include in the official documents and publications relating to registrations and renewals of marks the numbers of the categories, divisions and sections in which the figurative elements of those marks have been placed. “Documents and publications” mean, in particular, entries in the trademark register, registration and renewal certificates and publications of registrations and renewals in office journals, gazettes or web sites.
The numbers of the categories, divisions and sections appearing in official documents and publications relating to registrations should be preceded, for ease of comprehension, by the full name "Classification of Figurative Elements" or by the abbreviation CFE. It is recommended that the edition of the Classification according to which figurative elements of marks are classified be indicated by an Arabic numeral in round brackets, for example, CFE (8).
The Classification is sufficiently detailed for each section to contain only a relatively small number of figurative elements, thereby facilitating anticipation searches even when used by large industrial property offices. It is perhaps too detailed, however, for offices that register relatively few marks. Countries party to the Vienna Agreement may therefore declare that they reserve the right not to include the numbers of all or some of the sections in official documents and publications relating to registrations and renewals of marks (Article 4(5) of the Vienna Agreement). Moreover, the “auxiliary” sections (section numbers preceded by an “A”) are in any event not mandatory; national offices may use them at their discretion.
The current edition of the Vienna Classification is based on that approved on June 12, 1973, at the Vienna Diplomatic Conference.
Pending the entry into force of the Vienna Agreement, a provisional Committee of Experts, set up under a resolution adopted by the Vienna Diplomatic Conference on June 8, 1973, met in 1975 and 1976 to draw up proposals for amendments and additions to the original version of the Classification. Those proposals were published in a provisional edition in 1977.
Following the entry into force of the Vienna Agreement, the Committee of Experts set up under Article 5 of the Agreement, at its first session, in Geneva in May 1987, approved the majority of the amendments and additions proposed by the provisional Committee of Experts. At its second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh sessions, held in Geneva, respectively in 1992, 1996, 2001, 2006, 2011 and 2016, the Committee of Experts adopted a number of amendments and additions. The corresponding changes have been incorporated in the Classification.
At its third session (1996), the Committee of Experts adopted a new presentation of the Classification which consists in placing, within each division, the auxiliary sections at the end of the division, in marking the principal sections to which auxiliary sections are associated with an asterisk and in placing the auxiliary sections under appropriate headings.
The first edition of the Classification was published in 1973, the second in 1988, the third in 1993, the fourth in 1997, the fifth in 2002, the sixth in 2007 and the seventh in 2012.
The current (eighth) edition, published online in 2017, has been in force since January 1, 2018. It replaces the previous editions.
The Classification has been established in English and French, both texts being equally authentic.