Margreth Barrett on Rescuecom v. Google

By Eric Goldman

[Eric's note: my email in-box is bulging with emails trying to sort out last Friday's Second Circuit decision in Rescuecom v. Google. I got the email below from Margreth Barrett, a law professor at UC Hastings who has written a number of papers on online trademark issues (several of which I've blogged about before). See her SSRN page for a couple of those papers. With Margreth's permission, I'm reposting her email to me:]

It strikes me as weird to differentiate Google from the 1-800 case on the ground that the WhenU software didn’t use the plaintiff’s mark to trigger the pop-up–since when does a defendant have to use an exact mark before it can be deemed to have made an actionable use of the mark? Last time I checked, a defendant could infringe with a word or symbol that was confusingly similar to the plaintiff’s mark, like, for example, 1-800 Contacts and (or whatever it was). I know that the 1-800 contacts court noted that the web address was not the mark, but I can’t see why that should matter. At most the distinction says something about the defendant’s intent, but the defendant’s intent has not been a basis for declining to find infringement (unless it is considered in the context of a fair use defense, to excuse infringement). Does this decision mean that Google could use the mark owner’s web address to key a competitor’s ad every time a search result listed the mark owner in the top two or three search results? If so, what has been accomplished?

And the court’s technical application of the language of the section 45 definition of “use in commerce” is painful. It’s basically saying that Google’s display of the plaintiff’s mark to competitors using the keyword suggestion tool brings Google within the definition. But shouldn’t the display be to the people who are likely to be confused? Judge Leval is entirely disassociating the definition of use in commerce from the concept of trademark use. The folks who see Google’s “display” of the mark are not going to rely on it for information about product or service source. And the folks who might rely on it for information about source never see it.

The opinion strikes me as moving toward the notion in Panavision [Panavision Int'l, LP v. Toeppen, 141 F.3d 1316 (9th Cir. 1998)] that “selling” a mark constitutes trademark use. Boston Professional Hockey strikes again! [Boston Pro. Hockey Assoc., Inc. v. Dallas Cap & Emblem Mfg., Inc., 510 F.2d 1004 (1975)]

1-800 Contacts was a reasonably good decision, and Judge Leval has completely dismantled it. So what constitutes trademark use after this? The real underlying problem that I see here is that the court is trying to use an internal software application of a mark to prohibit an allegedly confusing screen display, which is only tangentially related to the software application, at best. It would be far better to address the screen display issue as a non-trademark-related issue of passing off or “fraudulent marketing,” as that term was defined in the Restatement of Torts. Tying to make liability for the screen display rest on the keying use of the mark just further distorts and extends mark owners’ control over their words and symbols in digital contexts.

And finally, what was the Appendix on the section 45 definition of use in commerce all about? The court’s account of the legislative history is sloppy and shockingly incomplete in a number of ways (for example, the court seems to be unaware that “affixation” and similar “trademark use” limitations were expressly built into the definition of technical trademark infringement both at common law and in all the prior federal trademark acts–language that looked a lot like the sec. 45 definition. And the court totally ignores the sequence in which things happened in the drafting process, which is extremely telling. See my full account of the legislative history of the sec. 45 “use in commerce” definition in my recent article at 43 Wake Forest L. Rev. 893) But aside from all that, what’s the point? Is the Appendix simply a performance for the benefit of Congress?

I think it is ironic that Judge Leval wrote an earlier law journal article [Leval, Trademark: Champion of Free Speech, 27 Colum. J.L. & Arts 187 (2004)] in which he touted the trademark use limitation on infringement actions as an important tool in protecting First Amendment interests.