It has become an asset in itself: the popular Audi slogan 'Vorsprung durch Technik'. But the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that the German car giant cannot trademark this phrase for many products and services that only have a slight link with its core car-making business.

In the latest ruling in a long legal tussle with the EU trademark regulator, the Office for Harmonisation in the Internal Market (Trade Marks and Designs) or OHIM, Audi has failed to persuade judges to let it trademark Vorsprung durch Technik for sales of photography equipment, precious metals, clothes, games, Christmas decorations, sports equipment, construction services, research services and legal work.

But it has accepted the automaker's right to trademark the slogan, (which means 'forward with technology' in English) for some goods and services that are often used by the automobile industry to promote their vehicles: printed paper publications, leather goods, insurance, sports events, restaurant services, and some personal social services.

The court backed OHIM in deciding that the phrase was insufficiently descriptive of how Audi might distinctively supply many non-automobile services to merit a trademark.

Legal arguments have verged on colourful debate. In proceedings, the OHIM inspector branded the phrase a "banal slogan", although he noted it was correctly phrased grammatically in German.

"The average German-speaking consumer recognises in this expression an indication of the quality of the products and proposed services, but not a mark," said the inspector.

Audi opposed these conclusions at the court, but to no avail.

It was also told to pay legal costs.

Keith Nuthall