Keyword Metatags and Keyword-Triggered Ads Don’t Create Initial Interest Confusion–Designer Skin v. S&L Vitamins
By Eric Goldman
Designer Skin, LLC v. S & L Vitamins, Inc., 2008 WL 2116646 (D. Ariz. May 20, 2008)
An Arizona district court has ruled that the surreptitious use of trademarks doesn’t create a likelihood of initial interest confusion, granting summary judgment on the trademark claims to the defendant.
This case is another enforcement action brought by a manufacturer trying to keep its goods from leaking out of its restricted channel and being sold on the Internet. For other lawsuits along this line, see Australian Gold v. Hatfield, S&L Vitamins v. Australian Gold (yes, the same S&L…and the same lawyer) and Standard Process v. Banks. The plaintiff tries the typical arsenal of claims to control the independent online retailer, including trademark infringement and dilution, copyright infringement for displaying product shots, interference with contract and other related claims.
With respect to trademark infringement, the plaintiff only complained about the surreptitious trademark uses in the keyword metatags and in keyword advertising, not any uses visible to consumers. The plaintiffs argued that these surreptitious uses created initial interest confusion (the discussion skips over the trademark use in commerce question). As I’ve said repeatedly, no one really knows what initial interest confusion means or how to develop a doctrinally rigorous test for measuring it, so every court makes up its own definition. This court’s manufactured definition anchors initial interest confusion in “deception.” This is consistent with the general Seventh Circuit articulation of initial interest confusion (although the 7th Circuit doesn’t understand initial interest confusion any better than the other circuits), and the court cites to the 7th Circuit Dorr-Oliver case. However, the court partially breaks with some of the controlling Ninth Circuit jurisprudence, which in Brookfield rooted the doctrine in attention diversion, not deception.
By grounding initial interest confusion in deception, it makes the doctrine easy to apply in this case. S&L Vitamins didn’t deceive consumers–it was selling legitimate goods and accurately describing this fact. The case has some odd discussion about the possible inherent deception if S&L Vitamins ranked well in the organic search results, but the court rejects this line of thinking, saying anyone confused by good search engine placement on a competitor’s trademark will be the “naive few” because S&L operated under a distinguishable domain name. This is the right result but the wrong reasoning–for the right reasoning, see here.
Instead of thinking that keyword metatags and ads creates deception, the court sees them as information-enhancing, thus getting the point that the goal is to match interested consumers with willing vendors:
In contrast to the deceptive conduct that forms the basis of a finding of initial interest confusion, S & L Vitamins uses Designer Skin’s marks to truthfully inform internet searchers where they can find Designer Skin’s products. Rather than deceive customers into visiting their websites, this use truthfully informs customers of the contents of those sites. Indeed, in practical effect S & L Vitamins invites Designer Skin’s customers to purchase Designer Skin’s products. The fact that these customers will have the opportunity to purchase competing products when they arrive at S & L Vitamins’ sites is irrelevant. The customers searching for Designer Skin’s products find exactly what they are looking for when they arrive at these sites. S & L Vitamins is not deceiving consumers in any way.
Bingo! Summary judgment for S&L Vitamins.
Even though this IIC-qua-deception meme is generally consistent with 7th Circuit law, this result appears to be directly contrary to the uncited 7th Circuit Promatek v. Equitrac case, where the court waffled on whether keyword metatags were inherently deceptive, even when used by a legitimate provider of services for the trademarked good.
More importantly, this result also runs directly contrary to the 2006 10th Circuit Australian Gold case, which found that keyword metatags in a virtually identical situation (unauthorized seller of leaked legitimate goods) constituted initial interest confusion. The court acknowledges this conflict but dismisses the 10th Circuit case as “unpersuasive” because the mark usage is designed to attract consumers to the trademark owner’s actual goods. From my perspective, this is more evidence that courts are not following the Australian Gold v. Hatfield precedent–the most obvious example being the 10th Circuit’s own Ski Vail case, which took a big chunk out of the Hatfield precedent. I know plaintiffs love citing the Hatfield precedent, but it’s becoming increasingly less credible to do so.
Given the more rigorous requirements for fame post-TDRA, it seems like many manufacturers who tightly control their channel and restrict Internet sales may inherently have a problem establishing fame. Perhaps I’m not part of the target audience, but I had never heard of Designer Skin products before.
The court doesn’t get into the fame issue, instead granting summary judgment to S&L based on the nominative use defense because all of S&L’s trademark uses refer to the plaintiff’s trademark. I’d have to do some research to confirm this, but I believe this is one of the first (if not the first) post-TDRA cases dismissing a dilution claim on nominative use grounds. Personally, I think S&L’s usage neatly fits my characterization as a “commercial referential trademark use,” but it’s great to see a court get the point, whatever terms it uses to describe the behavior. The court also (correctly, IMO) says that a commercial referential trademark use effectively can’t cause a likelihood of dilution because it’s neither blurring (there’s no new definition) nor tarnishing (it’s an accurate reference).
Designer Skin complained that S&L copied the photos posted to its website. S&L claims that it simply recreated the product shots independently. This factual dispute is enough to prevent SJ. Patry believes that 17 USC 113(c) should have protected S&L here, but as Rebecca explains very well, 113(c) may not be germane–Designer Skin admitted that S&L could recreate its own shots if it wants to (see FN9 of the opinion), so the only question is whether the photos actually displayed on S&L’s site were independently created.
If S&L snatched the photos from Designer Skin’s website, then the court says republishing those would not be a fair use. I think this is probably right, although it’s rather silly from a social welfare perspective to make people recreate product shots when invariably they will look effectively the same, and certainly the manufacturer isn’t going to stop producing product shots simply because legitimate downstream retailers “free ride” on that investment. Rebecca has more to say about the fair use discussion.
The court dismisses the interference with contract claim and S&L’s unfair competition claim, but it preserved Designer Skin’s unfair competition claim (which, as Rebecca rightly points out, should be preempted by copyright’s preemption clause).
As I’ve said before, I don’t understand why plaintiffs try to control their channel so tightly to preclude Internet sales. I mean, I get the fact that they are trying to increase profits by reducing retailer competition, but those efforts will pay off only in the short run at best. Time to develop a new business model! Meanwhile, courts are realizing that they are being asked to facilitate anti-competitive practices, and wisely they are balking. Thus, a case like this illustrates that a judge will find limits to the initial interest confusion doctrine (a doctrine that otherwise has no natural doctrinal limits) and interpose pro-competitive defenses to trademark dilution.