11th Circuit Freaks Out About Metatags–North American Medical v. Axiom

By Eric Goldman

North American Medical Corp. v. Axiom Worldwide, Inc., 2008 WL 918411 (11th Cir. April 7, 2008)

Oh man, what a bizarre and frustrating ruling from the 11th Circuit on metatags. The parties compete in the “spinal decompression” device market. Defendant Axiom included the plaintiff NAM’s trademarks “Accu-Spina” and “IDD Therapy” in the metatags but did not otherwise use the terms. The district court concluded that this constituted trademark infringement, a determination that the 11th Circuit upholds here.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to parse this case because the court is imprecise about which metatags were used. I’ve looked through the defendant’s appellate brief and they don’t clarify the technology for the court at all–I’m wondering if any of the attorneys involved in this case know that there are multiple types of metatags. We only have the following three facts to work with:

* Axiom included competitive trademarks in the metatags

* Axiom appeared as the second organic search result in Google for the trademarked terms (following the plaintiff, which was #1 in the search results)

* The trademarked terms appeared in the search results descriptions

The court assumes causality here between the metatag inclusion and the search engine displays. This might be possible if Axiom put its competitor trademarks in the description metatags. Doing so isn’t automatically problematic; for example, a description metatag that has comparative statements with competitive products should be permissible. However, description metatags–just like any other marketing copy–could be written in a way designed to deceive consumers. If that’s what happened here, then I understand the court’s anger (even if I might disagree with its analysis).

But another hypothesis fits these facts. The court does not exhibit any understanding of anchor text or the fact that Google sometimes automatically assembles search result descriptions using third party content (such as DMOZ). So it’s entirely possible for these three salient facts to occur (i.e., Axiom’s site to show up for searches on the competitive trademarks with the trademarks in the site description) even if Axiom only included the trademarks in the keyword metatags (which we know Google ignores). If the latter hypothesis is true, the 11th Circuit completely misattributed responsibility to Axiom for doing things it didn’t do.

Predicated on its poorly articulated and possibly erroneous assumptions about Axiom’s role in appearing in the search results, the court has little difficulty slamming down Axiom. On the use in commerce question, the court concludes that, pursuant to the “plain meaning” of the statute, metatags are clearly a use in commerce in connection with goods or services because they support advertising objectives. I don’t think the statutory language is the least bit clear, especially if search engines ignore keyword metatags and thus the trademark references have no chance of being perceived.

Along the way, the 11th Circuit distinguishes (and denigrates) the Second Circuit’s 1-800 Contacts v. WhenU case on two grounds: (1) this involves metatags, not URLs, and (2) “unlike in 1-800 Contacts, the defendant-Axiom in this case did cause plaintiff’s trademark to be displayed to the consumer in the search results’ description of defendant’s site.” The court takes an affirmative swipe at the Second Circuit, saying that the analysis in the 1-800 Contacts case is “questionable” and unpersuasive.

On the consumer confusion question, because the plaintiff’s trademarks appeared in the search results, the court assumes that “Consumers viewing these search results would be led to believe that Axiom’s products have the same source as the products of the owner of the “IDD Therapy” and “Accu-Spina” trademarks, or at least that Axiom distributed or sold all of the products to which the brief description referred, or that Axiom was otherwise related to NAM….Thus, the factual situation in the instant case is that Axiom’s use of the meta tags caused a likelihood of actual consumer confusion as to source.”

Fortunately, the court does try to limit the collateral damage of its ruling by narrowing the facts at issue:

This is not a case like Brookfield or Promatek where a defendant’s use of the plaintiff’s trademark as a meta tag causes in the search result merely a listing of the defendant’s website along with other legitimate websites, without any misleading descriptions. This is also not a case where the defendant’s website includes an explicit comparative advertisement (e.g., our product uses a technology similar to that of a trademarked product of our competitor, accomplishes similar results, but costs approximately half as much as the competitor’s product). Although we express no opinion thereon, such a defendant may have a legitimate reason to use the competitor’s trademark as a meta tag and, in any event, when the defendant’s website is actually accessed, it will be clear to the consumer that there is no relationship between the defendant and the competitor beyond the competitive relationship.

But despite this disclaimer, there’s plenty of sloppy and broad language to keep plaintiffs going for some time.

From my perspective, there are two obvious lessons to learn from this case. First, the text of description metatags needs to be reviewed just like any other ad copy. This may seem obvious, but I suspect that many SEMs do not run their metatag scripts by the lawyers. When I was in practice, I would proactively ask our SEM folks to provide a copy.

Second, if you are going to use keyword metatags, you must ensure that competitive trademarks do not appear in your keyword metatags, period. It’s just not worth it. They don’t buy you much juice with the search engines anyway, and it will leave you exposed to irrational judicial freakouts about keyword metatags if ever tested in court.