Delayed Enforcement Blocks Domain Name Lawsuit–Southern Grouts v. 3M
By Eric Goldman
Southern Grouts & Mortars, Inc. v. 3M Co., 2008 WL 4346798 (S.D. Fla. Sept. 17, 2008)
I’m often baffled by lawsuits over domain names and keywords because they just don’t seem to make any economic sense. This lawsuit is especially perplexing given the plaintiff’s delays and the seeming impossibility of the plaintiff reaching a profitable outcome, even if it won in court. What was the plaintiff thinking?
3M and SGM compete in the field of “quartz aggregate products for surface finishes.” SGM has a federal trademark registration for “Diamond Brite.” In 2000, 3M bought an unrelated business whose assets included a trademark in “Diamond Brite” and the domain name “diamondbrite.com.” For a while, 3M redirected the domain name to the home page of the other business unit it owned. No later than July 2002, the domain name stopped resolving, but 3M continuously renewed its domain name registration. Ultimately, 3M migrated the new unit to its existing trademarks and let its acquired trademark in “Diamond Brite” lapse.
Meanwhile, in 2005, 3M did a 3 week trial buying “diamond brite” in Google AdWords, but the lawsuit only involves the domain name, not the AdWords purchase.
SGM contacted 3M three times about the diamondbrite.com domain name. No later than July 2002, SGM emailed 3M asking if it could acquire the domain name. In Feb. 2005, SGM sent a cease-and-desist letter, which 3M rejected. Then, in July 2007, SGM wrote to 3M again proposing an amicable solution, and 3M continued to resist. SGM then sued 3M in Sept. 2007.
From my perspective, this is an easy laches case. Taking 5 years to pursue the matter, with nothing resembling an ongoing dialogue, is simply too long. 3M wound down use of the domain name, so its economic expectations aren’t disturbed like a typical laches case, but there is still the increased litigation costs due to the 5 year delay. The court rejects that either the AdWords purchase and the domain name renewals resetted the laches analysis.
Unfair Competition on the Merits
The court says that the mere possession of the diamondbrite.com domain name without any further use does not constitute a “use in commerce” sufficient to support Lanham Act violations. Along the way, the court distinguishes a veritable who’s-who list of junky domain name cases from the turn of the century, including PACCAR, Brookfield, PETA v. Doughney, OBH and Planned Parenthood v. Bucci. The court distinguishes most on the fact that 3M didn’t have an active website resolving to the domain name, but it goes further with the OBH and Bucci cases:
OBH and Planned Parenthood are both nearly a decade old. As with any widespread change in technology, there is a learning curve. Even if those cases were correct when decided, I decline to adopt the position today that internet users of any significant number would be frustrated or hindered by merely not arriving at the expected site the first time a web address (domain name) was typed in… With the advent of multiple, and increasingly powerful search engines, it is unlikely that a potential consumer of SGM’s products would be turned away by not finding a website at diamondbrite.com. In any event, SGM has presented not a scintilla of evidence to show that consumers have been prevented from accessing SGM’s own website, or prevented from obtaining any of SGM’s goods or services. (emphasis added)
The bolded language, of course, is true and has been for a number of years, but it’s nice to see a court expressly acknowledge that “technological facts” embedded in the precedent are now out-of-date. It’s also nice to see the court clearly recognize the substitutability of the domain name system and search engines and to realize that consumers prefer search engines.
The court also rejects the precedent by pointing out that there cannot be likelihood of consumer confusion when the domain name owner doesn’t resolve at all. As the court says, “The seven factors use to determine whether a likelihood of confusion exists become irrelevant if there is no “use” to compare the mark to.” There is plenty of stupid precedent to the contrary (including those predicated on initial interest confusion, which the court expressly rejects), but this court nails it.
ACPA on the Merits
In my opinion, the ACPA claim is an easy defense win because 3M (and the predecessor company) had legitimate trademark interests in “Diamond Brite” prior to the domain name’s registration. The court still courteously goes through the “bad faith” ACPA analysis before concluding that 3M had none. Along the way, the court soundly rejects a pretty silly argument that the domain name registration pointing to an unresolved domain name would divert consumers because frustrated consumers would do a Whois lookup query for the defunct domain, learn that 3M was the registrant and seek out 3M to transact with. Some arguments are better left unmade.
In the end, the court grants summary judgment to 3M and dismisses the lawsuit.
I understand how matters like this can sit on an in-house counsel’s desk for years, only resurfacing every couple of years and prompting a “ping” to the other side. But I simply can’t understand how, in 2007, after 5 years of irresolute progress, SGM thought the economic upside justified the expense of a lawsuit.
On the benefit side, a domain name like “diamondbrite.com” has some value, especially when it’s associated with a product line bearing that name. But how much value? Assuming a lawsuit like this costs at least six figures, I can’t imagine that the domain name is worth anywhere close to that. Indeed, any incremental selling power from the domain name could be cost-effectively replicated through a combination of SEO and SEM on the term “diamond brite.” Better yet, SGM could have poured the money into product sales and marketing, which I’m confident has a substantially higher ROI than suing or gaming the search engines.
As further evidence of the weak value of the domain name, SGM did not cite any harm from not owning the domain name, and the matter only rose to the top of SGM’s in-house personnel’s desk 3 times in 5 years. Clearly, this is not a “must have” domain name,
On the expense side, these types of lawsuits are costly. In addition to the normal attorney’s fees, SGM obtained at least one expert witness (and, to add insult to injury, the court bounced the expert’s report), did some expensive discovery (including obtaining and reviewing 3M’s portfolio of 13,000 domain name registrations) and tied up key internal personnel on the lawsuit (including testimony from the “head of information technology and the executive vice-president of SGM”). The cost of a lawsuit isn’t measured just by out-of-pocket attorney expenses but by overall opportunity cost, and on that basis, this lawsuit tied up valuable resources.
Finally, the rational decision-maker multiplies the cost-benefit amount by the probability of winning, and it seemed clear to me that this lawsuit had bad odds from the get-go. The ACPA claim was destined to lose because on the high “bad faith” standards (it also makes me wonder why SGM didn’t try the UDRP first) and the fact that 3M had clear legitimate rights at the beginning. The potential success of the unfair competition claim is naturally less clear, but even if SGM won this claim, they had almost no chance of recovering meaningful damages or attorney’s fees. As a result, I can’t see a scenario where this was a breakeven lawsuit from the beginning. Given the low odds of success, this just seems like a clearly futile waste of money from day 1.
[A personal note: I'm out for the rest of the week for the Jewish holiday and a trip to the heartland. I'll probably next see you again next week. L'shanah tovah tikatev v'taihatem!]