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French language requirements in Québec: Part 3 – Language used in commercial publications, including websites and social media

This third article of the French language requirements in Québec series will address the French language requirements for commercial publications. For an introduction to the Charter of the French language (R.S.Q. c. C-11) (the French Charter), as well as an overview of the rules in terms of inscriptions on products, please see previous articles in the series – Part 1: An Introduction and Part 2: Inscriptions on products and accompanying documentation.

General Rule

The general rule under the French Charter is that all “commercial publications” must be in French1. Commercial publications include catalogues, brochures, flyers, commercial directories and any similar publications, as well as contracts, invoices, websites and social media2. Another language may also be used alongside French, as long as the other language is not given greater prominence than the French language (for further detail on the “greater prominence” requirement, please refer to the article of this series titled Inscriptions on products and accompanying documentation3).

The Regulation respecting the language of commerce and business (R.S.Q. c. C-11, r.-9) (the Regulation) nuances the general rule set forth above: any commercial publication can be published as two separate versions, one exclusively in French and one exclusively in another language, provided that the French version is just as accessible and of the same quality as that in another language4. Thus, businesses must be careful when using an online translating tool to translate their commercial publications as the result may not meet the quality of the original version, which may not be acceptable by the Office québécois de la langue française (the OQLF)5.

Exceptions

As with all rules, there are exceptions. The exceptions to the general rule are all found in the Regulation:

The following inscriptions appearing on catalogues, brochures, flyers, commercial directories and any similar publications, may appear exclusively in a language other than French:

  • the name of a business established exclusively outside Québec;
  • a name of origin, the denomination of an exotic product or foreign specialty, a heraldic motto or any other non-commercial motto;
  • a place name designating a place situated outside Québec or a place name in such other language as officialized by the Commission de toponymie du Québec, a family name, a given name or the name of a personality or character or a distinctive name of a cultural nature;
  • a “recognized trademark” within the meaning of the Trademarks Act (R.S.C. 1985, c. T-13), unless a French version has been registered (this exception will be further detailed in an upcoming article of this series)6.

The Regulation also contains exceptions for commercial publications concerning a cultural or educational product/activity7, or relating to a fair, exhibition, convention or conference8.

Websites & Social Media

The French Charter was adopted well-before the Internet and social media revolutionized our world. As such, websites and social media are not directly mentioned in the French Charter and the Regulation, but the Court and the OQLF have interpreted “commercial publication” to encompass websites and social media9.

However, the current practice of the OQLF is that not all websites and social media pages accessible in the province of Québec need to follow the requirements of the French Charter, only those of businesses with an establishment in the province of Québec that advertise, commercialize, or otherwise offer products and services to Québec consumers10.

In practice, this means that a French version of the website must be available, including not only the substantive content, but also the terms and conditions, the privacy policy, any purchase agreement, or shipping/return policy, any FAQs, etc. In the event the original version of the website is not in French, the French version of the website must be of the same quality as that of the original version.

For social media, it may not be practical to have an account in French and an account in another language; businesses will generally have one account. Thus, they must ensure that their posts (in a language other than French) of a commercial nature targeted to Québec consumers are also in French and meet the “greater prominence” requirement. Of course, businesses do not have control over sponsored ads, sponsored Tweets, the language used by individuals to publish a comment, etc. However, when a Québec consumer communicates in French with a business, for example, by commenting on a post, the business must reply in French. On the other hand, if the comment is in English, it is permissible for the business to answer in English11.

We have noticed in recent years that an important percentage of the fines awarded by the Court are for non-compliant websites12. Fines under the French Charter will be further addressed in an upcoming article of this series.

If you have further questions about the French Charter and how it applies to commercial publications, please contact a member of our firm’s Trademarks & Brand Protection group for further guidance and assistance.

The next article (part 4) of the French language requirements in Québec series will explore language used on public signs, posters and commercial advertising. Subscribe to our IP Update — Canada newsletter to receive the full series and other timely updates in your inbox.

References

1. French Charter, section 52.

2. French Charter, section 52, and “Le français dans la documentation commerciale”, available online at https://www.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/ressources/bibliotheque/depliants/20120425_depliant_5B.pdf.

3. French Charter, sections 89 and 91.

4. Regulation, section 10.

5.Un virage numérique profitable en français”, available online at https://www.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/francisation/entreprises/201711_virage-numerique-profitable.pdf, at p. 2.

6. Regulation, section 13.

7. Regulation, section 11.

8. Regulation, section 12.

9.Les médias sociaux et la Charte de la langue française – Guide pratique à l’intention des entreprises”, available online at https://www.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/francisation/entreprises/guide-medias-sociaux.pdf, at p. 7, and Québec (Procureur général) c. Waldie-Reid, 2020 CanLII 63270 (QCCQ), and Reid v. Court of Québec, 2003 CanLII 17980 (QCCS).

10.Les médias sociaux et la Charte de la langue française – Guide pratique à l’intention des entreprises”, available online at https://www.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/francisation/entreprises/guide-medias-sociaux.pdf, at pp. 7-8.

11.Les médias sociaux et la Charte de la langue française – Guide pratique à l’intention des entreprises”, available online at https://www.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/francisation/entreprises/guide-medias-sociaux.pdf, at pp. 7 and 9.

12. List of the fines imposed by the Court of Québec: available online at https://www.oqlf.gouv.qc.ca/francisation/respect/index.html.

The preceding is intended as a timely update on Canadian intellectual property and technology law. The content is informational only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. To obtain such advice, please communicate with our offices directly.