Vulcan Golf v. Google Class Certification Denied

By Eric Goldman

Vulcan Golf, LLC v. Google Inc., 1:07-cv-03371 (N.D. Ill. Dec. 18, 2008). Previous blog posts: initial complaint filed, ruling on motion to dismiss

This is a complex lawsuit by trademark owners attacking domaining and the role of the Google AdSense for Domains program in funding domaining activity. When I first blogged on the case in 2007, I wrote:

the lawsuit could effectively fall apart if the judge rejects formation of a class. Trademark class action lawsuits are rare for good reason– trademark owners must establish the validity of their marks, the famousness of their marks (for dilution) and the similarity between their marks and the defendants’ usage. These are all intensely fact-specific questions; none of which seem susceptible to class adjudication

Yesterday, the court ruled on class certification, and perhaps not surprisingly, the court denied certification–giving Google and the other defendants an early Christmas gift. Happy holidays! This ruling doesn’t completely squelch the lawsuit, but without class certification, the case becomes a whole lot less interesting to the plaintiff’s lawyers. For that reason, it also wouldn’t surprise me to see them appeal the class certification denial.

The ACPA and Trademark Infringement Claims

The court rejects class certification for the trademark infringement and Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act claims because the individual questions of fact predominate over the common questions of law.

The court blanches at the thought of trying to determine the owners of the applicable trademarks. The plaintiffs said that TESS could answer any ownership questions, but the court rightly realizes that TESS is not a definitive and comprehensive source of trademark ownership information. As a result, the court says “Even if the court has to conduct hearings regarding ownership on even a tiny fraction of the potentially millions of registered and unregistered marks or personal names of the putative class members, such an undertaking would render proceeding as a class unmanageable.”

The court also rejects the verifiability of trademark “distinctiveness.” The plaintiffs argued that a trademark registration could suffice as evidence of distinctiveness, but the court rightly points out that registration only provides rebuttable evidence of distinctiveness. The court also points to problems with unregistered trademarks and personal name marks. The court thus concludes “were the class to be certified, the court would be required to engage in thousands (or more) of individual inquiries as to whether a class members’ mark is distinctive,” which would be a “staggering” undertaking with respect to the unregistered and personal name marks.

The court also assesses the prospects for adjudicating various affirmative defenses, such as abandonment or fair use. The court says “the affirmative defenses related to the putative class members’ marks simply add another layer to an already fact-specific inquiry that the court must delve into with respect the putative class members’ marks or names.”

The Unjust Enrichment Claim

The court bounces the unjust enrichment claim because unjust enrichment laws vary by state. The plaintiffs tried to say California law applies categorically due to Google’s involvement, but the court correctly points out that there are plaintiffs and defendants who have nothing to do with California and therefore would not be appropriately governed by CA law. Once CA law is out of the picture, the court confronts the state-by-state variations in unjust enrichment law and concludes that those variations are enough to deny class certification.

Whether Class Action Relief is Superior to Other Methods

In addition to these legal problems, the court has some interesting discussion about the plaintiffs’ desired remedy. The court expresses some frustration that the plaintiffs seem to vacillate between saying they want damages and saying they only want injunctive relief. If the plaintiffs only want injunctive relief, the court says that a class action lawsuit is inferior to the extrajudicial options to plaintiffs of pursuing a UDRP action and opting-out of Google’s and the domainers’ program (which the plaintiffs have already done to some degree). This is the first time I can recall a court favorably citing either the UDRP or a search engine trademark policy as a substitute for judicial action such that it curtails legal recourse. The court also notes the availability of direct non-consolidated actions against the defendants, including large statutory damages plus attorneys fees under ACPA, as another substitute for the class action.

Some Further Implications

First, this case reinforces the difficulty of establishing class action lawsuits to enforce trademark rights. They are possible, but so often the idiosyncrasies of each trademark preclude summary adjudication.

Second, this case might have some utility for the multitudinous other class action lawsuits against Google and the other search engines over their advertising practices, such as the CLRB Hanson case and the string of advertiser lawsuits against Google over AdSense placement on domainer sites. Although this ruling principally turns on the vagaries of trademark law and the other lawsuits typically involve contract interpretations, this court signaled some clear discomfort with class litigation where there are meaningful factual differences between the plaintiffs. To that extent, this case does not suggest favorable outcomes for class certification in those cases either.

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