Move aside file-sharing, user-generated content, and DMCA “take down” notices for copyright infringement; here come the trademark and brand protection lawyers taking on Google again. Just this month, a Federal Court in the Northern District of California refused to dismiss charges brought by American Blind & Wallpaper Factory (yes, they sell window blinds) that Google is illegally selling American Blind’s trademark as a keyword that consequently triggers sponsored links to competitors’ ads when they do a “Google” search. As you know, selling keywords is a huge source of revenue for Google, and the judges’ refusal to grant Google a summary judgment dismissing the case breathes some new trademark life into an old story. Google had argued its AdWords program is not a “use” of trademarks of others in “commerce” within the meaning of the federal law that regulates trademarks—the Lanham Act. In asking the court to dismiss the case, Google relied on two federal cases in the Southern District of New York.
In one case, the court held that unless the trademark was placed on the goods or their packaging or in advertisements, if the search word was invisible to the public—it wasn’t being “used” in the trademark sense and therefore wasn’t infringement. In the second case, Merck claimed that an online pharmacy infringed Merck’s trademark: it bought the keyword “Zocor”—a drug manufactured by Merck—and was using it to generate advertising and sponsored links to the online pharmacy’s generic version of that drug. The court analogized the use of a keyword to private thoughts or mental categorization, and upheld the pharmacy’s right to buy the word from Google for search purposes.
The court in California distinguished these cases from those decided in New Jersey and some unreported decisions emanating from Delaware and Minnesota, where search engines were considered to be infringing when they sold trademark keywords to competitors, noting that these transactions were trading on the value of a company’s trademarks—thus prohibited. Stay tuned. Round 2 is coming up.