Utah Trying to Regulate Keyword Advertising….Again!? Utah HB 450

By Eric Goldman

When I first heard that the Utah legislature is considering yet another law to regulate keyword advertising, I thought: Are you kidding me? After all, Utah has pursued these regulations twice with disastrous results. The first time, in 2004, Utah’s attempt to regulate adware-mediated keyword advertising was declared unconstitutional, and Utah amended the law in 2005 to make it irrelevant. In 2007, Utah tried again, passing a law that restricted keyword advertising across-the-board. That law was a spectacular failure, garnering derision both within Utah–especially from angry Utah citizens shocked that their elected representatives passed a law that the state AG thought was unconstitutional and that was going to cost valuable taxpayer money to defend in court–and globally as everyone wondered if the Utah legislature was really that crazy. In 2008, the legislature tucked its tail between its legs and repealed the 2007 law.

With this track record, the Utah legislature wants to try regulating keyword advertising again…? Are you kidding me?

Then again, perhaps this latest foray really isn’t all that surprising. My sources tell me that 1-800 Contacts is the prime mover behind this statute, and 1-800 Contacts has testified in support of the law. 1-800 Contacts has an hard-to-explain love/hate relationship with keyword advertising. 1-800 Contacts has been a repeat litigant against keyword advertising, including being the losing plaintiff in the landmark 1-800 Contacts v. WhenU case, and 1-800 Contacts has continued to bring other lawsuits against competitive retailers (such as the LensWorld case I blogged about a year ago). At the same time, 1-800 Contacts has been a buyer of trademarked keyword ads, and it was one of the companies that protested the 2007 law because it was concerned the law would limit its own advertising practices (although, at the last minute, 1-800 Contacts flip-flopped and tried to sneak in new restrictions on keyword advertising into the putative repeal of the 2007 law). Clearly, 1-800 Contacts has a complex attitude towards keyword advertising, although it might just be pure duplicity. Either way, with 1-800 Contacts’ flip in 2008 and its continued litigation against keyword advertising, it’s not unexpected that they might try to bend the ear of the apparently pliable Utah legislature.

The Proposed Law

The 2004-05 laws banned trademark-triggered pop-up ads triggered by adware. The 2007 law allowed trademark owners to register their marks with a newly created Utah administrative registry (which never got created) and prohibited keyword buyers and sellers from using registered marks as triggers for keyword advertising. HB 450, the proposed 2009 law, takes a very different approach than the 2007 law:

Fewer Defendants. The law only applies to keyword buyers (advertisers). Unlike the last two laws, keyword sellers such as search engines are immune from liability under this law. However, the law is expansive in other ways: the law expressly holds an advertiser liable for affiliates’ keyword purchases (a currently open point in trademark law), and the law expressly references telephone directory assistance advertiser as being within its scope.

Opt Out. The law only applies after the trademark owner sends a takedown notice/cease & desist demand to the advertiser. Further, if the advertiser stops within 10 days of the takedown notice, it is not liable for any remedies under this law. (They might still be liable under other legal doctrines).

Limited Remedies. My reading of the law is that the only remedies against an advertiser are an injunction and attorneys fees–no damages. I’m not 100% sure about this because some states have laws that create damage claims outside the scope of any specific statute (I’m thinking of California B&P 17200). I don’t know if Utah has a catchall provision like that.

Geographic Restrictions. One of the most deficient aspects of Utah’s 2007 law was that it required advertisers throughout the country to check the new registry before buying keyword advertising on a third party trademark, even if the advertiser, the keyword seller and the trademark owner all had zero connection with Utah. This law tries much more clearly to restrict its reach to Utah. First, the law only applies to ads “in Utah,” whatever that means. Second, the law only restricts keyword buys made from sellers that allow “an advertiser to limit the display of advertisements by geographic location.” I’m not exactly sure what this means–after all, a site like eBay segregates its listing database by country; does that mean eBay gives advertisers geographic choices?–but it’s clear that an advertiser purchasing ads from a seller that doesn’t offer any geolocation choices isn’t covered by the law. Third, the law doesn’t apply if segregating Utah ad viewers from non-Utah ad viewers isn’t “technologically feasible” or would impose “an undue financial burden.” I’m not saying that this law will survive a dormant commerce clause challenge–personally, I think all state regulation of the Internet is inherently suspect–but the law certainly tried to limit its reach to Utah.

Narrow Scope. The law applies when “the delivery or display of an advertisement in Utah…is the product of a bad-faith attempt to profit from the registrant’s mark by diverting a consumer from the registrant, the registrant’s authorized licensees, or another source authorized by the registrant.” The statute provides for a multi-factor evaluation of what constitutes a “bad faith diversion” by keyword advertising, with the first factor being that the ad “is likely to create an initial, misleading impression that the person is a legitimate source of the goods or services” (which itself is subject to another multi-factor evaluation). Personally, I don’t think there is such a thing as bad faith diversion or initial misleading impressions with respect to truthful ad copy, so this ought to be a null set. Even so, the law lists a number of categorical exclusions from its coverage, including:

* advertiser belief that the ad is fair use. Note: the bill uses the term “fair use” several times, even though this term is not well-defined in trademark law. So it isn’t clear to me if “fair use” meant descriptive fair use, nominative use, both, neither, or yet something else.

* the sale is permissible under the First Sale doctrine. This should exclude keyword buys by other parties in a trademark owner’s distribution channel. However, as I recently blogged, courts are struggling with the First Sale doctrine’s application to e-commerce.

* “(a) fair use of a mark in comparative commercial advertising or promotion to identify the competing goods or services of the owner of the famous mark; (b) noncommercial use of a mark; and (c) all forms of news reporting and news commentary.” This is an interesting set of exclusions; it looks like the drafter tried to (incompletely) mimic the federal dilution exclusions. However, the implicit redundancy with the other fair use aspect mentioned above also raises a question why (a) only applies to famous marks. That’s either a drafting error or a significant limitation on that prong.

So What Does This Law Do?

From my reading, it appears that this law does not apply to gripe ads or trademark conflicts within a distribution channel. Therefore, I think the law really only applies to advertising on competitors’ trademarks, and even then, only some of the ads.

Given the application to competitive keyword advertising and the focus on an injunction as a remedy, this law covers only limited circumstances that are not already addressed by the search engines’ trademark policies, which provide an extrajudicial “injunction.” Indeed, this law is nearly co-extensive with Yahoo’s and Microsoft’s trademark policies. On the other hand, the law would govern situations that Google isn’t remediating with its trademark policy because it could force advertisers off keywords that Google would happily sell. Furthermore, the ambiguous application of the law to keyword buys from places other than search engines, such as telephone directory assistance services, may implicate some keyword sellers who don’t currently have trademark policies.

Conclusion

If I’m right that this law simply codifies current search engine trademarks policies and extends them some, then this law isn’t as problematic as Utah’s last two efforts. But it also makes me wonder–what’s the point? Doesn’t Utah have more important problems to solve???

Even if the law is less troublesome than the last two, let’s be clear: this is not a good proposal. As with Utah’s past two efforts, this law has nothing to do with improving consumer welfare. Instead, it would allow companies to suppress competition by helping companies keep their competitors from gaining exposure among the company’s potential customers; meaning that companies won’t have to work as hard competing on price and quality. I understand why companies such as 1-800 Contacts, who has a pattern of trying to use legal tricks to suppress competitors, would find it attractive to ply their local legislators for some corporate welfare. But why any legislator would waste their time with such an unabashed anti-competitive, anti-consumer request is simply beyond me. As I have explained elsewhere, policy-makers should be helping consumers get relevant content, not enacting laws to take it away from them.

The bill is making its way through the Utah House, and my observation of Utah legislative proceedings is that bills can be amended substantially from beginning to end. So this bill could get better, or it could get much worse. Fortunately, a coalition of Internet companies is lobbying against the bill, and the bill barely survived its first committee hearing on an 8-6 vote. Thus, it’s not guaranteed that this law will make it through. My hope is that the Utah legislators will recognize the law’s depravity and their own poor track record in the area and squelch this latest effort.

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