Facebook’s Trademark Suit Against Teachbook Survives Motion to Dismiss

by Eric Goldman

Facebook, Inc. v. Teachbook.com LLC, 2011 WL 4449686 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 26, 2011).

Facebook has been helping many lawyers send their kids to private school with an expensive enforcement campaign to control the prefix “face” and suffix “book” for social networking sites. Its “-book” targets have included Lamebook (which recently settled; see some speculation why), Bearbook for the hirsute gay community and Teachbook, the subject of this lawsuit, which targets teachers.

Facebook’s entire campaign is fraught with peril given the intensely descriptive nature of Facebook’s own trademark, the historical meanings of “facebook” prior to The Facebook, and the interest of budding new entrepreneurs in taking advantage of the pre-The Facebook lexical meanings of the term. But the reality is that Facebook is apparently willing to sink a significant amount of money into an aggressive legal position, which helps it bully 9 out of 10 targets off the term just by threatening them.

Teachbook is one of the few that didn’t back down, and it even won an initial legal victory in May when it got Facebook’s trademark infringement lawsuit dismissed for lack of jurisdiction. Facebook promptly refiled in Teachbook’s home court, and Teachbook’s subsequent motion to dismiss gets zero traction with this judge.

Evidentiary Issues

Teachbook submitted 300 pages of exhibits and asked the court to consider them on the motion to dismiss, and the court rejects all of it. For example, the court declines to take judicial notice of a filing Facebook made in a European trademark proceeding, USPTO filings and various dictionaries. The court also declines to consider printouts from Facebook’s website, saying those printouts aren’t “central” to Facebook’s complaint.

The good news for Teachbook is that all of this material can be considered at a later stage of the lawsuit. The bad news is that it has to fight long enough to get there.

Is the “Book” Suffix Generic?

Teachbook made the reasonable argument that the suffix “book” is generic, and therefore Facebook should not be able to enforce any rights in the term “book.” (If I recall correctly, Facebook had to disclaim the “book” suffix in its US trademark application). Facebook logically retorts that it is seeking to enforce the entirety of its “Facebook” mark, not just any standalone rights in the suffix “book.” The court accepts Facebook’s spin, at least for purposes of the dismissal motion, saying “one could reasonably infer that the choice of the TEACHBOOK mark—which, like the FACEBOOK mark, is a curt, two-syllable conjunction of otherwise unremarkable words—to offer a similar service in the same medium was no accident.” The court also notes that Facebook has a registered trademark (prima facie evidence that the term “Facebook” is not generic) and that Teachbook has the burdens on a motion to dismiss.

The court says that even if Facebook is enforcing just the “book” suffix, that term isn’t generic:

Facebook is using the suffix-BOOK to offer social networking services via the internet. Even in this age of “e-books,” social networking services do not fall within the category of what one would traditionally call “books.”…were we to narrow the focus of our inquiry to the suffix -BOOK, we would still be unable to conclude that Facebook’s mark is merely generic in the context of offering social networking services on the internet

It appears the court has only one definition of “book” in mind–presumably, a long-form bound-cover published BOOK. The court even says “the word “book,” unlike “top,” does not instantly call to mind a multiplicity of meanings.” But I couldn’t disagree more, the “book” can mean many things in addition to a classic BOOK. Indeed, before The Facebook, a facebook was a printed photo directory of people in a small social network, such as the incoming 1L class at a law school. For more on the legal ambiguity of the term “book,” see our blog post on the California Reader Privacy Act, which I still oppose in large part due to the semantic ambiguity of the term “book” (and which I predict will lead to a privacy plaintiff lawyer fiesta on that point).

Likelihood of Consumer Confusion

On mark similarity, the court sees enough similarity for now: “Both marks are a combination of the suffix-BOOK preceded by fairly mundane, monosyllabic words. And in both instances, it is the uninterrupted conjunction of the mundane words with the suffix-BOOK that gives the marks their verve.” The court distinguishes between sites that draw users through “word-of-mouth, hyperlinks, and search engine results” versus user browsing, saying:

Given the similarities between the TEACHBOOK and FACEBOOK marks, it is reasonable to infer that someone browsing the internet might understand Teachbook to be “in some way related to, or connected or affiliated with, or sponsored by” Facebook.

Huh? If the user reaches the site by browsing, then they will see the entire site–including any disclaimers, and the market positioning that Teachbook is an alternative to Facebook. A quick inspection of Teachbook should have instantly ended the possibility of any user confusion about Facebook’s sponsorship or affiliation.

The court then goes off the rails when he discusses search engines. He tries to parse the abominal Seventh Circuit case Eli Lilly v. Natural Answers (the Prozac v. Herbrozac case) from over a decade ago. In the Eli Lilly case, the court inferred the defendant’s bad faith from the defendant’s inclusion of the plaintiff’s trademark in the metatags. This is one of the classic judicial freakouts about metatags; fortunately, most judges have learned a lot about Internet search since then, but this judge is still stuck in the 1990s. The judge thinks the “Teachbook” domain name could serve as the functional substitute for metatags and therefore supports the same inference of bad faith:

It is reasonable to infer from the complaint that the same thing may be happening here, albeit with website domain names rather than meta tags. Indeed, one can imagine teachers searching the internet for www.facebook.com and hitting upon www.teachbook.com. And even though these same teachers might also read Teachbook’s attempt to define itself as an alternative to Facebook, the initial interest stems from the goodwill associated with Facebook, not Teachbook.

Uh, no. I can’t think of any reasonably likely keyword search for “Facebook” or any variation thereof that is likely to produce the Teachbook search result anywhere in the top 100 search results (except, perhaps, for stories about this lawsuit). And relying on initial interest confusion is a joke; check out the Google search results for “Teachbook” and see if you can find any reason to think initial interest confusion (whatever that means) will occur. Plus, the initial interest confusion doctrine is typically an analytical crutch for plaintiffs’ lawyers and judges who can’t think of any real justifications for their decisions. Finally, just up above, the court had said that the risk was people browsing to Teachbook instead of getting there via search engines; now, the judge is worried about search engines. Which is it, judge?

The judge wraps up his misguided likelihood of confusion discussion by assuming that teachers are idiots:

Furthermore, who is to say these teachers might not think that Teachbook is Facebook’s response to some schools banning teachers from using Facebook? In light of such policies, a reasonable consumer might assume that Facebook was offering social networking services targeted specifically at teachers and addressing the privacy concerns at which the schools’ policies are apparently aimed. The same consumer might further assume that Facebook, in order to draw on its famous name, decided to call that service TEACHBOOK. Indeed, nothing in the statement from Teachbook’s website indicates that this is not the case.

It’s true that if judges keep giving Facebook trademark protection for the suffix “book,” the world will assume Facebook owns all brand extensions of “-book.” This is a classic bootstrap of weak trademark rights into powerful ones. But judges could just as easily reverse that presumption by authorizing Lamebook and Bearbook and Teachbook and all of the other legitimate derivations of the suffix “book.” Hey judge, we trust teachers to teach our kids; I think we can trust them to figure out the differences between Teachbook and Facebook (although I’d venture a guess that even a second grader would have zero difficulty distinguishing between Facebook and Teachbook).

Trademark Dilution

The court shoots down Teachbook’s argument that “Teachbook” and “Facebook” are too dissimilar to create dilution. The court logically cites Levi Strauss & Co. v. Abercrombie & Fitch Trading Co., 633 F.3d 1158 (9th Cir. 2011), but that case has really ripped open the door for trademark dilution claims for dissimilar marks. The court then says Facebook sufficiently alleged blurring to let this claim continue.

I wonder about Facebook’s dilution posture given the dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of third party precedent trademarks with the term “book” in them, suggesting that Facebook itself has a narrow range of protectable interests. Further, Facebook might be exposing itself to greater dilution risk from other famous trademark owners with “book” in their trademarks who might have dissimilar marks but could claim Facebook is blurring theirs. It seems to me that Facebook is playing with fire here–not that such risks are likely to deter Facebook in its highly aggressive quest to own “face” and “book.”

Conclusion

Good judges can adjust their evaluation to the legal standard at issue, i.e., the presumptions are often against the defendant on a motion to dismiss, but the plaintiff has a greater burden of persuasion at later stages in the case. If the judge modulates his standards, this opinion doesn’t necessarily portend doom for Teachbook. But if that modulation doesn’t happen (and potentially even if it does), this opinion clearly indicates that Teachbook is in deep, deep trouble with this judge.

This opinion trots out some moldy oldie Seventh Circuit freakouts about the Internet, such as the Eli Lilly case and the eminently mockable Promatek v. Equitrac case. In light of the Ninth Circuit’s Network Automation case, I’m wondering if Teachbook would actually have had more favorable precedent in the Ninth Circuit rather than moving the case back to the Seventh Circuit. Something for future trademark defendants to think about.

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