Catching Up on Three Keyword Advertising Cases–Hearts on Fire, Romeo & Juliette, AAA

By Eric Goldman

Three trademark owner v. advertiser rulings from the past month:

Hearts on Fire Co. v Blue Nile, Inc., 2009 WL 794482 (D. Mass. March 27, 2009). The Justia page.

This is an interesting and potentially very important keyword advertising case.

The plaintiff is a diamond manufacturer which sells its products under the “Hearts on Fire” brand. The plaintiff does not sell its diamonds directly to consumers. The defendant is an Internet retailer that does not sell the “Hearts on Fire” brand of diamonds. The plaintiff alleges that Blue Nile bought the keyword “hearts on fire” at WebCrawler and then displayed an ad that included the words “hearts on fire” in the ad copy.

In this ruling, Blue Nile tries to dismiss the trademark claims for lack of use in commerce. The ruling came out before the Rescuecom case, but it doesn’t matter. (The court did not feel bound by the First Circuit’s Venture Tape case, which did not address use in commerce in a metatags case). After canvassing the statute and the precedent, the court says “there is little question that the purchase of a trademarked keyword to trigger sponsored links constitutes a “use” within the meaning of the Lanham Act.” Post-Rescuecom, this is even more likely to be true.

The court also discussed consumer confusion. Noting that “there is no suggestion that diverted consumers inadvertently believed they were purchasing Hearts on Fire diamonds at Blue Nile’s website,” the sole possible basis of consumer confusion is initial interest confusion. In an understatement, the court notes that doctrine is a “somewhat ill-defined concept.”

Unfortunately, the court proffers its own definition of initial interest confusion (one of dozens of different definitions), and its definition is a regressive throwback to 1990s legal conceptions of search processes:

[a] classic example [of IIC] is where a consumer sets out in search of one trademarked good, but is then sidetracked en route to his or her original destination by a competitor’s advertisement or offering. He or she is never confused as to the source or origin of the product he eventually purchases, but he may have arrived there through either misdirection or mere redirection. In effect, initial interest confusion involves the diversion of the consumer’s attention from one trademarked good to a competing good, even if he is not confused about the source of the products he ultimately considers or buys

As I’ve repeatedly explained, this definition (and its emphasis on attention diversion) is analytically corrupt because it overassumes a linear search process. How do we know when a consumer is “sidetracked” or, in fact, discovers more helpful information? And how can a court determine this?

Despite this odd and unfortunate construction of initial interest confusion, the court acknowledges an alternative story that searchers might be able to distinguish between competitive offerings, which would preempt any initial interest confusion. The court hypothesizes that some keyword advertising listings might be akin:

to a menu–one that offers a variety of distinct products, all keyed to the consumer’s initial search. Sponsored linking may achieve precisely this result, depending on the specific product search and its context. When a consumer searches for a trademarked item, she receives a search results list that includes links to both the trademarked product’s website and a competitor’s website. Where the distinction between these vendors is clear, she now has a simple choice between products, each of which is as easily accessible as the next. If the consumer ultimately selects a competitor’s product, she has been diverted to a more attractive offer but she has not been confused or misled

So where does Blue Nile fit on this spectrum between attention usurper and menu-option? The court isn’t willing to let Blue Nile off the hook because it advertised on a trademark for a product it does not sell, saying a “consumer who had just entered a search for Hearts on Fire diamonds might easily believe that the Defendant was one such authorized retailer when presented with Blue Nile’s sponsored link, even if the accompanying text did not contain the trademarked phrase.”

As a result, the court reserves this case for a full multi-factor likelihood of consumer confusion analysis—but not the normal multi-factor analysis. Instead, the court plans to look at a bunch of additional factors beyond the normal ones:

under the circumstances here, the likelihood of confusion will ultimately turn on what the consumer saw on the screen and reasonably believed, given the context. This content and context includes: (1) the overall mechanics of web-browsing and internet navigation, in which a consumer can easily reverse course; (2) the mechanics of the specific consumer search at issue; (3) the content of the search results webpage that was displayed, including the content of the sponsored link itself; (4) downstream content on the Defendant’s linked website likely to compound any confusion; (5) the web-savvy and sophistication of the Plaintiff’s potential customers; (6) the specific context of a consumer who has deliberately searched for trademarked diamonds only to find a sponsored link to a diamond retailer; and, in light of the foregoing factors, (7) the duration of any resulting confusion.

This is a good news/bad news development. The good news is that this is a very productive inquiry for courts to make. It does not matter what judges or plaintiffs intuitively think will confuse consumers; it only matters what consumers think and how they process the information presented to them. The bad news is that I have no idea how the parties will provide credible evidence to support this inquiry, and a new and even more complex multi-factor test is destined to compound the existing judicial difficulties with the multi-factor likelihood of consumer confusion test.

Some implications of this case:

1) In the past, some language in First Circuit cases implied that the First Circuit did not recognize the initial interest confusion doctrine. This case offers more evidence that the initial interest confusion doctrine, like a virulent weed, has taken root (in some form or another) everywhere.

2) A ruling like this shows how courts are analytically tortured by keyword advertising cases.

3) Assuming that Blue Nile falsely advertised that it sold “Hearts on Fire” diamonds, isn’t this a paradigmatic bait-&-switch? In other words, do we really need to go through these doctrinal contortions? On the other hand, if the Blue Nile ad copy had a clearer exposition that it sold diamonds but not Hearts on Fire branded diamonds, wouldn’t that also be an easy case? Thus, the only difficulty is when Blue Nile keys its ads to Hearts on Fire but doesn’t reference the trademark in the ad copy at all (which, for example, would be the result in any Google ads if Hearts on Fire blocks its trademark). Personally, I would love to see some empirical evidence about how consumers evaluate ads without any reference to the triggering brand. Meanwhile, for you SEMs, if you are not already doing so, you should be running your ad copy by your lawyers. Clear ad copy ought to reduce or eliminate the risk of lawsuits like this.

4) I will be interested to see if other courts embrace the court’s addition of new factors to the multi-factor consumer confusion test. If so, this could make these cases much more complicated and expensive, but it could also prevent quick plaintiff wins by trademark owners who have no evidence of consumer confusion/initial interest confusion/whatever.

Other opinions on the case: Wendy Davis, Ryan Gile and David Kelly at Finnegan,

Romeo & Juliette Laser Hair Removal, Inc. v. Assara I LLC, 2009 WL 750195 (S.D.N.Y. March 20, 2009). The Justia page.

The litigants are competing laser hair removal vendors. The plaintiff alleges that the defendant ran the following ad:

Romeo And Juliette Laser

Unlimited Laser Hair Removal

$599/Month. Free Consultations.

New York, NY

Clicking on the URL took consumers to a website where the second line allegedly read “romeo juliette laser Unlimited Laser Hair Removal-$599/Month. Free Consultations.”

The defendant alleges that the offending website was operated by a third party, ReachLocal. The court doesn’t describe the Assara-ReachLocal relationship in detail, but it does say that ReachLocal is a “third party that Assara hired to manage its advertisements.”

In any case, the defendant also seeks dismissal based on a lack of use in commerce. Although this ruling was also pre-Rescuecom, it doesn’t matter because the plaintiff’s trademark was referenced in both the ad copy and the linked website, which easily satisfies the use in commerce requirement. See, e.g., the Hamzik case.

Ron Coleman has more to say on this case.

The American Automobile Association v. Darba Enterprises, 2009 WL 1066506 (N.D. Cal. April 21, 2009). The Justia page.

Normally I stay away from jurisdictional rulings. However, occasionally keyword advertising plays a key role in the jurisdictional analysis (see, e.g., the Optihealth Products case), and those cases can be a little more interesting.

The defendants operate “several websites that purport to match consumers seeking auto insurance quotes with third-party insurers.” AAA complains that the defendants “displayed the AAA Marks without authorization for the purpose of tricking internet users into believing that the site was affiliated with AAA,” bought keyword ads triggered by AAA marks, and displayed AAA marks in the ad copy. Further, AAA complains that consumers submitted the lead generation form expecting AAA to be included but the form did not actually get submitted to AAA for a quote.

The court has little problem establishing jurisdiction over the defendant. The court deems the site “commercial” and “interactive” for purposes of the Zippo jurisdictional test. There were also 2 California consumer complaints against the defendants, and the lead generation form had a zip code field to indicate when consumers were from California. “Moreover, by utilizing pay-per-click advertisements to ensure that its name would come up when internet users searched for “AAA insurance,” defendant intended to lure internet users to its website, including California residents.”

It’s difficult for advertisers on third party trademarks to avoid jurisdictional responsibility in the trademark owner’s home court, so this ruling is not very surprising. However, as discussed with the Hearts on Fire case, I hope the court rethinks its perceptions about advertisers “luring” consumers.