Lasoff owns Ingrass, which makes artificial turf. He claims he’s losing business to “cheaper, counterfeit” versions of Ingrass. (The opinion uses the term “counterfeit,” though it probably means knockoffs). He objects to the fact that Amazon runs keyword ads for “Ingrass” at the search engines and in promotional emails that are algorithmically programmed for remarketing (i.e., promoting products the email recipient viewed on Amazon but didn’t buy). The promotional email ad copy comes from third party sources. Prospective customers who saw these ads for “Ingrass” were directed to the Amazon product pages containing listings from the alleged counterfeiters.
Citing the Ninth Circuit’s ccBill v. Perfect 10 ruling, the court cleans out all of the state law claims (unfair competition, state trademark infringement, tortious interference, negligence and unjust enrichment) due to Section 230. The court says:
A venerable and classic Internet Law question: when a consumer uses a trademark as a search term, what are they looking for? If they are seeking the trademark owner–and only the trademark owner–then competitive keyword advertisers may encroach on the trademark owner’s goodwill and “steal” the trademark owner’s customers (and the search engine/ad network may be profiting from this “theft”). In contrast, if consumers have heterogeneous search objectives when using a trademarked search query, trademark law would overreach–in ways that would significantly harm social welfare–if it prevented ads from parties other than the trademark owner.
A new empirical study, Jeffrey P. Dotson et al, Brand Attitudes and Search Engine Queries, 37 Journal of Interactive Marketing 105 (2016), provides further support for this conclusion. The study is based on a rich dataset: a time-series of actual Google search queries in the cellphone and automotive categories by opted-in consumers. The authors don’t consider the legal questions, but their conclusions buttress the perspective that consumers have heterogeneous motivations when they use trademarks in their search queries.
I recently posted a co-authored article, Regulation of Lawyers’ Use of Competitive Keyword Advertising, discussing lawyers’ use of competitive keyword ads triggered by other lawyers’ names. That article examines both IP laws and attorney rules of professional conduct and explains why buying lawyers’ names for competitive keyword ads is permissible and desirable. If you haven’t read it, it will be a helpful foundation for the rest of this post.
In light of our paper, a new opinion from South Carolina Supreme Court left me scratching my head. The case reached the Supreme Court as an “Agreement for Discipline by Consent” between the state bar counsel and Zachary Naert–basically, a settlement agreement. The Supreme Court approved the settlement in an opinion with scant analysis.
Since the inception of the search engine, trademark owners, advertisers, search engine providers, and the courts have struggled with the issue of the use of third-party trademarks in keyword advertising and search returns, and whether such trademark use is likely to confuse consumers when they are searching for information regarding a particular brand. Despite an array of holdings on this issue over the years, following the 2011 decision in Network Automation, Inc. v. Advanced System Concepts, Inc., the Ninth Circuit and other courts have generally held that the potential for “mere diversion” of a consumer caused by the use of a third party’s trademark in connection with sponsored keywords or search results does not constitute trademark infringement unless a trademark owner can demonstrate that particular search returns or sponsored keyword advertisements are likely to cause confusion based on the specific use or presentation of a trademark in a search return.