Pharma Company Avoids Injunction By Dropping Competitive Keyword Ads–King v. ZymoGenetics

By Eric Goldman

King Pharmaceuticals, Inc., v ZymoGenetics, Inc., 2009 WL 4931238 (E.D. Tenn. Dec. 10, 2009). Seattle Trademark Lawyer has some background.

This case involves the cutthroat (sorry) world of blood clotting drugs. King Pharmaceuticals sells bovine (cow) thrombin, a clotting agent. ZymoGenetics sells thrombin made from hamster ovaries and snake venom. ZymoGenetics’ version has been making inroads on the thrombin market, and King isn’t too pleased about that. King claims that its dropping market share is due to several bad acts on ZymoGenetics’s part, including ZymoGenetics’ AdWords campaign that included the King trademark “Thrombin-JM” as a keyword.

Blaming illegitimate AdWords for King’s dropping market share seemed particularly implausible for two reasons. First, the product is purely B2B and has no consumer-facing side. It’s used for post-surgery recuperation, so doctors/hospitals are the target customers–and for professional and liability reasons, they are pretty careful about what they prescribe to patients. So if the AdWords ads have helped facilitate doctor switching, it’s more likely due to doctors learning of a new drug that doesn’t have some of cow thrombin’s negative side effects than any marketplace mistake over brands or other “unfair” diversion.

Second, the AdWords ads produced a trivial number of clicks. ZymoGenetics reports that it got 84 clicks on “Thrombin-JM” (and only 803 on the generic term “thrombin”). The court doesn’t expressly guffaw at King for fighting over 84 clicks, but I can hear a snicker or two in the opinion. Not surprisingly given the minuscule volume of clicks, ZymoGenetics voluntarily dropped the competitive keyword purchase when it learned of King’s lawsuit (it wasn’t giving up much), and it agreed not to buy the keyword again. King pressed for a preliminary injunction to forcibly hold ZymoGenetics to its word, which many courts will issue in these situations, but this court decides that ZymoGenetics’ promise is good enough and denied the preliminary injunction.

Now, King was going to court to redress ZymoGenetics’ perceived transgressions no matter what, so it would be a little unfair to beat up on them for litigating over 84 clicks. However, this case is yet another example of how competitive AdWord lawsuits often are ridiculous overkill given the economic value at issue. (Related examples are 1-800 JR Cigar, which involved $345 of revenue, and Storus, which involved 1,374 clicks over an 11 month period). It’s a good reminder to trademark owners to be smart with their litigation dollars!