Online Resale of Expired Cosmetics May Be Trademark Infringement–Mary Kay v. Weber

By Eric Goldman

Mary Kay, Inc. v. Weber, 2009 WL 426470 (N.D. Tex. Feb. 20, 2009). The Justia page. There are a number of Mary Kay meta-sites tracking this and other Mary Kay lawsuits. For more filings and commentary on this case, see pinklighthouse.com.

Amy Weber is a former Mary Kay Cosmetics independent salesperson (in Mary Kay-speak, “Independent Beauty Consultant,” or “IBC”). To retain her IBC status, she was required to buy $200/mo of cosmetics. It sounds like Weber wasn’t able to move this much product through traditional Mary Kay sales techniques, so she ultimately lost her IBC status. Meanwhile, apparently stuck with an inventory of unsold goods, Weber started reselling the cosmetics on eBay. Over time, she started buying cheap Mary Kay products on eBay from other folks and flipping them on eBay for more. Eventually she started an e-commerce website, initially called “marykay1stop” but later renamed “touchofpink.com.” It sounds like the venture became quite successful.

Not surprisingly, Mary Kay wasn’t pleased with the channel conflict that the defendants were causing. A Mary Kay representative first contacted the defendants in 2005, ordering them to change their e-commerce site’s name (so that it didn’t reference Mary Kay) and remove any copyrighted product shots. The parties dispute this conversation; the defendants say that the representative promised that they would be legally OK if they took these steps, while Mary Kay says that its demands didn’t promise safety. Not satisfied with the defendants’ responses, Mary Kay sued in 2008 for trademark infringement and a variety of other claims.

Regular blog readers will recognize this fact pattern. We’ve seen a number of similar lawsuits where a manufacturer/brand owner with restricted distribution channels sues because those channels break down and legitimate original goods hit the Internet. See, e.g., Standard Process. v. Total Health Discount (E.D. Wis. 2008); Australian Gold v. Hatfield (10th Cir 2006); S&L Vitamins v. Australian Gold (EDNY 2007); Standard Process v. Banks (E.D. Wis. 2008); Designer Skin v. S&L Vitamins (D. Ariz. 2008); and Tiffany v. eBay (SDNY 2008). The legal principles developed in these cases are decidedly mixed.

In this case, it sounds like one possible problem is that Mary Kay forced its retailers (i.e., the IBCs) to buy more product (through the minimum monthly orders) than the retailers could sell–which would be a type of channel stuffing that leads to big inventories of unsold goods being held by retailers. If so, then Mary Kay got blitzed by all of this unsold inventory when an Internet sales channel opened up. If anything, the minimum monthly order probably exacerbates the problem because those orders are probably at the reduced distributor prices, which would allow IBCs to flip a portion of the inventory at cost to Weber (keeping the rest for personal consumption at the discounted distributor price or resale through traditional means), enabling Weber to undercut standard retail prices.

Trademark Infringement

From a legal standpoint, the trademark infringement claim looks easy to dispose of. Due to the First Sale doctrine, IBCs and any downstream resellers should be free to resell legitimate goods at whatever price they want; and they should be free to let consumers know of the availability of those goods. However, the First Sale doctrine applies only when the resold goods are not “materially different.” Mary Kay argued that the goods were materially different because “(1) they are expired, (2) they do not carry the same product guarantee, and (3) they are old, used, discontinued, or otherwise defective.” Some of these arguments are questionable (why are discontinued but unmodified goods “materially different”?), but everyone agreed that Weber was reselling expired goods, and with perishable goods this could matter. Not being a cosmetics consumer, I’m not sure how perishable cosmetics are; I suspect some aren’t, even if they are stamped with an expiration date. In any case, the court denies summary judgment, making this a fact question for the jury.

The defendants also claimed nominative use, which allows the defendants to use “Mary Kay” to refer to the vendor/licensor Mary Kay. The nominative use defense is only available if the defendants did not take more of the trademark than necessary and did not imply any sponsorship or affiliation.

In addition to the defendants’ website references, the defendants spent $20,000/mo on Google keyword advertising to purchase 79 keywords, of which 75 included the phrase Mary Kay or the name of a Mary Kay product. Further, some of the text ads included Mary Kay in the ad copy. Citing the Total Health case, Mary Kay argued that purchasing keyword ads categorically precluded a nominative use defense because the defendants took more of the trademark than necessary. The court rejects this argument, reading the Total Health case more narrowly. The court goes further to say that it would disagree with a broader reading of the Total Health case because Mary Kay’s proposed reading would mean that “second hand sellers could not advertise on search engines such as Google without facing liability for trademark infringement.”

Instead, the court cites Tiffany and Designer Skin for the proposition that keyword advertising on third party trademarks does not automatically create an implied sponsorship or affiliation. As the court says:

the law will destroy the valuable resource that search engines have become if it prevents those search engines from doing what they are designed to do: present users with the information they seek as well as related information the user may also find helpful or interesting [cite to Designer Skin]

Yes! However, the court says that a fact issue remains whether the ad copy created an implied sponsorship/affiliation. The ad in question read:

“Mary Kay Sale 50% Off: Free Shipping on Orders over $100 Get up to 50% Off-Fast Shipping www.touchofpinkcosmetics.com.”

The court says the language “Mary Kay Sale 50% Off” could be read to imply that the ad was from Mary Kay itself.

As for the Mary Kay references on the touchofpink.com website, the court says that the likelihood of confusion factors point heavily in favor of a plaintiff win, so on that basis summary judgment for the defense is inappropriate. The court’s whole discussion of likelihood of confusion is entirely odd; the court seems to miss the point that the likelihood of confusion factors necessarily will point towards infringement when dealing with an unauthorized reseller of legitimate goods.

Other Discussion

* The court dismisses the tortious interference claims because the defendants didn’t actively recruit other IBCs to resell goods to them, even if the defendants knew that the IBC contract had a restriction on Internet resales, and because the defendants sale of the “trappings” of being an IBC didn’t substitute for becoming an IBC.

* The court also dismisses the unjust enrichment claim because unjust enrichment isn’t a standalone cause of action. Why why why do so many plaintiffs waste their time alleging unjust enrichment as a standalone cause of action???

* The court partially tosses Mary Kay’s consumer survey putatively showing the consumers assumed an affiliation between Mary Kay and the touchofpink website: “confusion that stems solely from the fact that the Webers are reselling Mary Kay products is not legally relevant and might confuse the jury. As a result, the court cannot allow the jury to hear the bald statement that forty five percent of consumers were confused about touchofpinkcosmetics.com’s affiliation with Mary Kay.” However, respondents’ narratives about why they assumed affiliation are admissible.

Conclusion

Mixed rulings like this often produce a settlement. Frankly, I could see both sides wanting to keep this case out of a jury’s hands. In court, defense counsel will hammer on the fact that Mary Kay is trying to suppress legitimate resales because they don’t like the competition; plaintiff’s counsel will probably argue that the defendants deliberately went too far in pretending to be Mary Kay instead of being clearer that they were an unauthorized reseller. I don’t know which argument will appeal more to a Texas jury, and this unpredictability increases the attractiveness of a settlement.

Doctrinally, I suspect the defendants hoped for a better ruling. Their First Sale defense was so palpable that it’s frustrating the defendants couldn’t get the court to embrace it fully. Then again, unauthorized resales of legitimate goods that have leaked out of a controlled channel have really confounded the courts, so perhaps a mixed ruling is to be expected–especially in light of some questionable (in hindsight) decisions by the defendants, such as their original choice for their website name, the ambiguous references to Mary Kay in their ad copy, and the heavy reliance on reselling expired cosmetics.

While the defendants’ failure to get a solid win was a loss of sorts, this case does offer some good news for future defendants–especially the court’s clear conclusion that simply buying trademarked keyword ads, without more, does not create an implied sponsorship or affiliation with the trademark owner. It would have been nice for the court to rely on some social science to support this proposition, but let’s celebrate the court’s wisdom however it got there. This, combined with the recent case saying that keyword advertising isn’t a false designation of origin, suggest that we are slowly overcoming past rulings that have treated keyword advertising as having some mystical power to hypnotize and divert consumers.

Finally, while completely irrelevant to the case, I’d be remiss if I didn’t link to a Mary Kay pink Cadillac–perhaps the most enduring attribute of the Mary Kay brand for a non-consumer like me. Wow.

Category: Product #: Regular price:$ (Sale ends ) Available from: Condition: Good ! Order now!
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