Another Lawsuit Over Google AdWords–Stratton Faxon v. Google

By Eric Goldman

Stratton Faxon v. Google, Inc. (New Haven Superior Ct. complaint filed May 27, 2009)

Today’s lawsuit combines two trends:

Trend #1: Lawyers-as-plaintiffs suing Google for their own account. I don’t have a complete inventory of these lawsuits, but other examples include the Field, Feldman, Person and Bradley lawsuits. Ironically, I believe all of these lawsuits were shot down in inglorious flames–lawyers-as-plaintiffs often seem to do even worse than other plaintiffs.

Trend #2: Lawsuits over Google AdWords, Heck, two were filed earlier this month (the Firepond and John Beck lawsuits).

This lawsuit is brought by a Connecticut plaintiff-side law firm that discovered a rival law firm was keying AdWords ads to the law firm name. Trademark owners faced with this situation might normally contact the rival and ask them to stop (which the rival firm claims to have done as soon as it heard of the lawsuit) and take advantage of Google’s trademark policy. But, if you’re a plaintiff’s lawyer, it sure is tempting to sue first and ask questions later…

And this lawsuit does raise a lot of questions, including:

* why didn’t the plaintiff sue for trademark infringement? The plaintiff claimed interference with business relations and unfair competition, but both claims fundamentally sound in trademark law and would be preempted if there was a robust trademark preemption doctrine. Perhaps a trademark claim is coming.

* why didn’t the plaintiff sue the advertiser instead of Google? Among other things, the plaintiff complains that its rival firm is mimicking other offline marketing efforts. If the problem is with the rival firm, wouldn’t they be the more appropriate target?

* why did the plaintiff seek a prejudgment $50,000 lien against Google instead of just filing a complaint? Maybe Connecticut law has some quirks that encourage or require this procedural step. Otherwise, is the firm concerned that Google won’t have $50,000 to pay off the plaintiff if it wins?

* did the plaintiff really just discover that its competitors are advertising on its name? The plaintiff was quoted as saying that the Firepond lawsuit prompted him to check the search results for the first time. What is this, 2002?

All of these questions make me wonder if this lawsuit is really intended to get some publicity and maybe prompt some calls from potential plaintiffs to form a new class action suit. Otherwise, Connecticut law may differ from California law, but under CA law this lawsuit would almost certainly be DOA. For example, even without relying on 47 USC 230, under CA law I don’t see any possibility that the plaintiff could establish the requisite scienter to make the interference with business relations claim stick. For a good analogous example of a failed misdirected attempt to smack a search engine for unwanted advertising, see the Heartbrand Beef case, where Yahoo was excused (without relying on 230) from a false designation of origin claim for selling trademarked keywords.

Stated differently, lawsuits like this–from lawyers who are clearly new to our community–simultaneously make me feel really smart and really stupid. Their allegations are so unmoored from our normal legal discussions that either the lawyers know something I don’t, or they have no idea what they are doing. I’ll let you to form your own conclusion about this lawsuit.

Clearly, this lawsuit isn’t a clone of the Firepond lawsuit, but I think it’s fairly characterized as a spawn of it in that the Firepond lawsuit helped educate another plaintiff lawyer about the desirability of suing Google. I expect other plaintiffs’ lawyers are getting the same message as we speak.

In theory, if the plaintiff firm really wanted to tweak its rival, it might also complain to the bar regulators about impermissible advertising under rules about lawyer advertising. This prompted me to wonder: have any bar association opinions on the permissibility of buying trademarked search keywords? I am not aware of any, but I may be forgetting something. Please let me know if you’ve seen such an opinion.