Google Gets Favorable ECJ Opinion, But Will It Prove to Be a Hollow Victory?

By Eric Goldman

The European Court of Justice issued its long-anticipated decision in the three Google AdWords cases (C-236/08, C-237-08 and C-238/08) referred to it by the French Cour de Cassation. The ruling only answers the questions posed to it by the Cour de Cassation, so in that sense it does not provide a blanket resolution of keyword advertising legitimacy in Europe. Nevertheless, all three answers by the ECJ are favorable to Google and other keyword advertising vendors—although, as I explore below, litigatable questions remain.

In broad strokes, the ECJ adopted Google’s position that it merely provides technology services to advertisers who make legally significant judgments using the technology. For example, the ECJ says that advertisers, not Google, make the requisite trademark “use,” and Google can qualify as a web host of its advertisers’ content—and thus is eligible for the associated safe harbor—if it remains sufficiently passive.

While these rulings improve Google’s legal position against trademark owners, the news isn’t uniformly good for the keyword advertising industry. The opinion identifies a number of potential legal pitfalls for keyword advertisers. We may learn more about these pitfalls from the other trademark owner-v.-advertiser cases pending before the ECJ. My understanding is that 5 such cases are pending, with one ruling coming on Thursday. Based on the language in this opinion, I think it’s probable that the subsequent ECJ rulings will show that keyword advertisers face significant legal exposure when buying competitive keyword advertising.

As a result, Google’s legal victory may prove to be a little hollow. Even if Google eventually earns a clean bill of health for itself, it could still see revenue contraction if advertisers are dissuaded by their legal exposure.

The ECJ Rulings

As typical with European legal opinions, this ruling (although briefer than many, including the Advocate General’s advisory opinion in the case) was unnecessarily long and written in inscrutable language. For example, the opinion refers to search engines selling keyword advertising as “referencing service providers” and keywords as “signs.” Huh? Further, like most European opinions, the opinion starts out with a lengthy but largely unenlightening recitation of facts and law. If you are looking to save a little time, skip ahead to paragraph 42.

Or, better yet, just start reading the opinion at the end. There, the court helpfully lays out its conclusions in three standalone paragraphs:

1. Article 5(1)(a) of First Council Directive 89/104/EEC of 21 December 1988 to approximate the laws of the Member States relating to trade marks and Article 9(1)(a) of Council Regulation (EC) No 40/94 of 20 December 1993 on the Community trade mark must be interpreted as meaning that the proprietor of a trade mark is entitled to prohibit an advertiser from advertising, on the basis of a keyword identical with that trade mark which that advertiser has, without the consent of the proprietor, selected in connection with an internet referencing service, goods or services identical with those for which that mark is registered, in the case where that advertisement does not enable an average internet user, or enables that user only with difficulty, to ascertain whether the goods or services referred to therein originate from the proprietor of the trade mark or an undertaking economically connected to it or, on the contrary, originate from a third party.

2. An internet referencing service provider which stores, as a keyword, a sign identical with a trade mark and organises the display of advertisements on the basis of that keyword does not use that sign within the meaning of Article 5(1) and (2) of Directive 89/104 or of Article 9(1) of Regulation No 40/94.

3. Article 14 of Directive 2000/31/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2000 on certain legal aspects of information society services, in particular electronic commerce, in the Internal Market (‘Directive on electronic commerce’) must be interpreted as meaning that the rule laid down therein applies to an internet referencing service provider in the case where that service provider has not played an active role of such a kind as to give it knowledge of, or control over, the data stored. If it has not played such a role, that service provider cannot be held liable for the data which it has stored at the request of an advertiser, unless, having obtained knowledge of the unlawful nature of those data or of that advertiser’s activities, it failed to act expeditiously to remove or to disable access to the data concerned.

A closer look at each of the three holdings.

Holding #1: Keyword Ad Copy Must Sufficiently Distinguish the Trademark Owner

This holding does not directly address Google’s liability; it only references the advertiser’s liability. The EU generally lacks a well-developed doctrine of secondary trademark liability. Therefore, even if an advertiser’s ad is problematic, that may not be imputable to the keyword vendor. (I discuss advertiser liability below).

In several places, the court’s language reinforces that keyword advertising systems do not create independent liability for their vendors. For example, in paras. 56-57, the court says that a “referencing service provider allows its clients to use signs which are identical with, or similar to, trade marks, without itself using those signs….The fact of creating the technical conditions necessary for the use of a sign and being paid for that service does not mean that the party offering the service itself uses the sign.”

Further, in paras. 94-95, the fact that other advertisers’ bids may increase the trademark owner’s price to display ads triggered by its own trademark (and Google’s consideration of ad quality) does not “constitute an adverse effect on the advertising function of the trade mark.” The court goes on to say (paras. 97-98):

when internet users enter the name of a trade mark as a search term, the home and advertising page of the proprietor of that mark will appear in the list of the natural results, usually in one of the highest positions on that list. That display, which is, moreover, free of charge, means that the visibility to internet users of the goods or services of the proprietor of the trade mark is guaranteed, irrespective of whether or not that proprietor is successful in also securing the display, in one of the highest positions, of an ad under the heading ‘sponsored links’. Having regard to those facts, it must be concluded that use of a sign identical with another person’s trade mark in a referencing service such as that at issue in the cases in the main proceedings is not liable to have an adverse effect on the advertising function of the trade mark.

As every SEO knows, nothing is “guaranteed” when it comes to search engine placement. Trademark owners usually show up well in organic search results for their trademark, but Google may have de-indexed or downgraded the trademark owner’s website. Further, personalized search results and universal search results can cause unexpected orderings. What happens to the court’s reasoning when the trademark owner doesn’t show up prominently in the organic results?

Holding #2: Search Engines Don’t Make a Legally Recognized “Use” of the Trademarks

In the Second Circuit ruling in Rescuecom v. Google, which held that Google made a “use in commerce” by selling trademarked keywords for keyword advertising. After that ruling, it was pretty clear that both buying and selling trademarked keywords constituted a “use in commerce” under US trademark law, shifting the litigation battle to likelihood of consumer confusion and the defenses.

Here, the court reaches the superficially opposite result, saying that advertisers, not Google, make the legally actionable “use in the course of trade.” These divergent results may just reflect differences in the statutory wording. Nevertheless, for enthusiasts of the “use in commerce” doctrine, its spirit apparently lives on in Europe!

Holding #3: Keyword Vending Can Qualify for E-commerce Directive

This was a doctrinally interesting conclusion. The E-commerce Directive was inspired by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act online safe harbors (17 USC 512), so it was oriented towards online copyright issues. For example, it has a safe harbor for caching that really only makes sense in the copyright context.

Here, the ECJ applies the E-commerce Directive to a trademark dispute, effectively treating Google as the web host of the advertiser’s ad content. While this is a promising interpretation, it leaves open some ambiguity about what will constitute disqualifying activity. The opinion makes it fairly clear that Google would have an “active role”—and therefore become disqualified for the safe harbor—if it helps the advertiser prepare the ad copy. However, Google can participate in its advertising campaigns in a variety of ways, such as suggesting bid amounts and keywords to purchase (through its keyword suggestion tool). Will these other participatory activities constitute a disqualifying “active role”?

Liability of Keyword Advertisers

The opinion highlights several potential liability risks for keyword advertisers. First, the opinion says that keyword advertisers can’t avoid liability by indicating that their products are “imitations” or “copies” in the ad copy. (Paragraph 102).

Second, regarding Holding #1, the opinion (paras. 83-85) raises concerns about ads triggered by keywords identical to a trademark where “normally informed and reasonably attentive internet users” cannot easily determine if the advertised goods originate with the trademark owner.

The precise wording of Holding #1 limits its applicability to a keyword that is identical to the trademark and to goods that are identical to the trademark owner’s goods. By inference, the language does not govern keywords that are similar to the trademark (does it exclude typographical error versions?) or goods such as complementary goods or replacement components. In addition, the standard seems to limit trademark coverage by class of goods—something that can be ambiguous when a single keyword is the trademark of multiple trademark owners in different classes. However, given the wording of the answer, I do not assume that these unaddressed circumstances will be found permissible when tested in future cases.

In the situations described in the holding, “the use by the third party of the sign identical with the mark as a keyword triggering the display of that ad is liable to create the impression that there is a material link in the course of trade between the goods or services in question and the proprietor of the trade mark.” The court says that national courts have the power to adjudicate whether that source confusion actually occurred (para. 88), but the following ads appear to be presumptively problematic:

* “where a third party’s ad suggests that there is an economic link between that third party and the proprietor of the trade mark” (para. 89).

* “where the ad, while not suggesting the existence of an economic link, is vague to such an extent on the origin of the goods or services at issue that normally informed and reasonably attentive internet users are unable to determine, on the basis of the advertising link and the commercial message attached thereto, whether the advertiser is a third party vis-à-vis the proprietor of the trade mark or, on the contrary, economically linked to that proprietor” (para. 90).

If this language is intended to cover ad copy that constitutes bait-and-switch or passing off, this language isn’t a big deal. However, this language appears to be broader, and I’m not entirely clear what advertisers can do to avoid these risks. A typical text ad has very limited space for subtle legal explanations, and Google’s trademark policies allow the trademark owner to prohibit the advertiser from referencing the trademark in the ad copy even for clarification purposes. For example, an advertiser purchasing the “smith” trademark as a keyword can be blocked from saying “compare our products to smith’s” in the ad copy. If the ad copy says “switch to us” or “we’re better than other brands,” will those types of implicit comparisons be enough to eliminate the ambiguity feared by the court? At minimum, the court’s language leaves plenty of room for trademark owner-vs.-advertiser lawsuits asserting ambiguous ad copy. Perhaps the pending ECJ AdWords cases will provide some further clarity.

What’s Next

I find EU governance structures generally baffling, so it’s impossible to anticipate all of the possible implications of this ruling. However, trademark owners steamed about this ruling have a wide range of options, including the following:

* they could seek a new directive, or seek to modify an existing directive, to expand keyword advertising vendor liability.

* to the extent possible (something I can’t easily evaluate), they can seek legislative changes at the national level to get back some of the ground lost in this ruling.

* they can continue to litigate the interstices of this ruling. For example, they can try to disqualify Google from the E-commerce Directive’s safe harbor by arguing that Google plays an active role in its advertisers’ decisions.

* they can seek to expand advertiser liability through any of these methods.

* they can litigate against advertisers one-by-one.

* as always, they can continue to send takedown notices or avail themselves of the search engine trademark policies.

Other good options may exist.

From Google’s perspective, I wonder if this opinion gives it enough comfort to liberalize its European trademark policy to match the rest of the world (i.e., allow trademark owners to block only certain ad copy references and not keyword purchases). For example, to retain its eligibility for the E-commerce Directive, Google still needs to follow a notice-and-takedown regime, although I wasn’t clear if Google’s takedown can just be the ad copy or has to be the keyword as well. Google did liberalized its UK and Ireland trademark policy after the Mr. Spicy ruling, which also concluded that Google did not make a legally actionable “use,” so perhaps Google will feel emboldened by Holding #2.

What Google SHOULD do is take a more proactive stance on the legality of the keyword advertising industry. It should propose legislation that protects both itself and its advertisers. It should also intervene in some of the trademark owner-vs.-advertiser cases that have the potential to establish disadvantageous legal rules for its advertisers. Google has been remarkably passive in terms of legal developments, playing defense only when threatened. I believe this is not a long-term winning strategy. Cf. the Battle of Hastings and how a determined and powerful opponent can eventually breach a shield wall. Google currently has to defend a wide array of battlegrounds, and a loss in any one of those venues could materially diminish its earning potential. To ensure the long-term viability of the keyword advertising industry, Google may need to go on the offense.

I don’t expect that this opinion will affect any US legal developments. For the most part, the opinion interprets governing EU directives and regulations. Because the words in those statutes are not the same as the words we use in the US, the opinion is not readily exportable to US law.

Nevertheless, this opinion could be the vanguard of an emerging legal trend to put the trademark compliance legal burden on keyword advertisers and not keyword vendors. We have not yet reached that conclusion in the United States, but it’s entirely sensible to me that the keyword vendors should not be trademark arbiters, and my hope is that US judges will get there eventually. For more on why I believe we should deregulate keyword ad sales, see this article.