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By Bill MacMinn
A client Googled the name of his own retail store. When he saw the results he was alarmed to learn that the result returned his store name with the name and telephone number of his biggest competitor, and a link to the competitor’s website, appeared in the top three search results and before the link to his own site. My client’s business name included a trademarked national brand. Surely, this must be unlawful?
Google searches return a natural or organic list of results produced by the keywords entered by the user. In addition, Google’s search engine also displays paid advertisements known as “Sponsored Links”. Google’s AdWords advertising platform permits a sponsor to purchase keywords that trigger the appearance of the sponsor’s advertisement and link when the keyword is entered as a search term. My client’s crafty competitor purchased the name of my client’s business as a “keyword” so that when a user searched on my client’s business name his competitor’s name was displayed as a “Sponsored Link” within the top three results and before the information and link to my client’s website. Google, which earns significant revenue from the AdWords platform, permits the use of trademarks as keywords.
There have been a multitude of lawsuits alleging trademark infringement over this practice. Few result in published decisions and of these; nearly all were losses for the trademark owner. Typical of these is 1–800 CONTACTS, INC. vs. LENS.COM, INC., a 2013 case from the Tenth Circuit, involving two internet sellers of contact lenses and related merchandise. At the time the case was filed, 1–800 Contacts, Inc. was the world’s leading retailer of replacement contact lenses, selling them by telephone, by mail order, and over the Internet. It was the owner of the service mark “1800CONTACTS”. Lens.com is one of 1–800’s competitors in the replacement-lens retail market, selling its products almost exclusively on line. Lens.com purchased the keyword 1800 CONTACTS which caused its “Sponsored Links” to appear when a Google user searched for that phrase. The Court ruled that Lens.com did not violate trademark laws. As with most such cases, the legal analysis turned on whether the alleged infringer’s use of the mark was likely to cause confusion to consumers. In ruling that such confusion was unlikely, the Court examined several factors, including the relatively few users who used the Lens.com link generated by the keyword “1800CONTACTS” to click through to the Lens.com site and the dissimilarity between the two companies websites which the Court concluded would minimize the likelihood of confusion. In other cases Courts have held that such factors as the sophistication of the Google users and the fact that the sponsored links generated by the keyword search appeared in boxes and were visually dissimilar from the organic links were sufficient to avoid user confusion.
Efforts to curtail this practice using state trademark common law and laws regulating unfair competition have also failed as these legal theories rely heavily on Federal trademark law requiring plaintiffs to meet the same likelihood of confusion requirement.
One commentator has observed that in many of the cases the sponsored links generated very few visits to the competitors’ site from users “clicking through” on keyword generated links. The economic value of those visits was small. For example, in the 1 800 Contacts case, the most optimistic estimate of damages was in the range of $40,000, much less than the cost of prosecuting the case.
Although the advice was counter-intuitive, I had to inform my client that any action based on his competitor’s use of his trademarked name as a keyword was not likely to succeed. The silver lining, if there is one, is that the strategy doesn’t appear to result in significant loss of revenue.