Keyword Ad and Product Shots Case Survives Motion to Dismiss–FragranceNet v. FragranceX

By Eric Goldman, Inc. v., Inc., 2010 WL 174159 (E.D.N.Y. Jan. 14, 2010)

I previously blogged about this case in 2007. That ruling was one of several in New York that, following the Rescuecom v. Google district court ruling, held that buying a competitor’s trademarks as keywords did not constitute a trademark use in commerce. As a result, the court granted a motion to dismiss.

Looking back even further, the case has been hanging around for almost 4 years. The first complaint was filed May 2006 and the plaintiff is now on its third amended complaint. This longevity is remarkable in its own right–just how much is this case worth to either litigant to justify four years of litigation costs and yet still be wrassling over motions to dismiss? The defendant tries to dismiss the complaint yet again, but this time the motion to dismiss fails, and the court directed the defendant to answer the complaint.

Copyright in Product Shots

FragranceNet claims that FragranceX copied 900+ product shots from FragranceNet’s website and republished them verbatim on the FragranceX website. FragranceX responded that product shots aren’t copyrightable. For more on the copyrightability of product shots, see my post on Designer Skin v. S&L Vitamins and the several other times I’ve addressed the topic.

I am not a fan of copyright protection for product shots. At best, I see them as subject to a very thin copyright that protects against only verbatim republication (although FragranceNet alleges FragranceX did just that). Even then, fair use should provide a wide range of permissible secondary uses. However, I also don’t see how the defense thought it could win a motion to dismiss that product shots are not copyrightable at all. The defense had to overcome the presumption that photos generally are copyrightable–a presumption which was significantly reinforced in this case because FragranceNet made a successful and timely registration of the photos with the Copyright Office. FragranceNet further alleged in the complaint that the product shots were taken with creativity. Busting the product shot copyrights may be possible with an evidentiary record, but not beforehand.

Trademark Claims over Metatags and Keyword Ads

FragranceNet also claims that FragranceX put its trademarks in the metatags (good grief, another plaintiff who needs to internalize that Google ignores keyword metatags) and bought them as AdWords keywords. FragranceX responds by alleging problems with FragranceNet’s acquisition of trademark interests from a third party, but these attacks fail on a motion to dismiss. (For true legal geeks, there is a brief and uncommon discussion of anti-champerty laws).

Although not discussed/cited in this case, I note that last month FragranceNet defeated a motion to dismiss in a different lawsuit attacking the FragranceNet mark as generic. Especially in light of the and Federal Circuit opinions, I expect both that defendant and this one will pursue genericness in future proceedings.