Ninth Circuit Upholds Web Host’s Liability for Counterfeiting Retailers–Louis Vuitton v. Akanoc

By Eric Goldman

Louis Vuitton Malletier SA v. Akanoc Solutions, Inc., No. 10-15909 (9th Cir. Sept. 12, 2011). Prior blog posts:

* Another Bad Ruling in Louis Vuitton v. Akanoc

* Making Sense of the $32M Contributory Trademark Infringement Judgment Against a Web Host

* Web Host Faces Potential Contributory Trademark Liability

This cases involves a US web host, Akanoc, that hosted Chinese retailers selling counterfeit Louis Vuitton goods. The web host apparently ignored numerous takedown notices from Louis Vuitton. Louis Vuitton sued for contributory copyright and trademark infringement, and the result has been a string of troubling rulings. For a sample of those, consider the trial court’s rulings that individuals directly infringe copyrights when browsing a photo of a counterfeit good, and a 512 agent for service of notice could be personally liable for any infringements. Ugh. The coup de grace was a massive $32+M jury verdict against the defendants for willful infringement.

On appeal to the Ninth Circuit, the court issued a characteristic “omnibus” opinion that resolves lots of contentions in relatively short order. Opinions like this rarely become major precedents, which is fine by me given the results. Overall, the court rejects all of the defendants’ arguments except one, but that one saves the defense over $10M.

Some of the more interesting points:

* MSG leased equipment to Akanoc. The jury held MSG liable, but the trial court reversed that. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit agreed that MSG wasn’t liable for the retailer counterfeiting because “Louis Vuitton presented no evidence that MSG had reasonable means to withdraw services to the direct infringers.”

* the defendants argued that its customers’ websites were the “means” of trademark infringement, not the hosting services to them. The court rejected the argument as irrelevant:

websites are not ethereal; while they exist, virtually, in cyberspace, they would not exist at all without physical roots in servers and internet services….Appellants had control over the services and servers provided to the websites. Stated another way, Appellants had direct control over the “master switch” that kept the websites online and available.

This seems to resolve one of the open issues from the Ninth Circuit’s 1999 Lockheed v. NSI case, which is the circuit’s benchmark opinion on contributory trademark infringement online. That case said NSI as a domain name registrar wasn’t responsible for an infringing domain name, but it implied that vendors closer to the infringement–such as web hosts–could be. This ruling confirms our assumption that web hosts have more affirmative obligations to intervene against trademark infringement than domain name registrars do.

* “providing direct infringers with server space” qualifies as a material contribution for contributory copyright infringement.

* the court touched on the required scienter for both contributory trademark and copyright infringement, but this discussion goes nowhere given that the jury found willful infringement.

Even though the defendants did not prevail on its doctrinal arguments, the appeal was partially successful because the court reduced the damages award over $10M (the jury had awarded $32+M against three defendants; the judge post-ruling had dismissed MSG, which cut the award to about $21M; this panel reduces it further to $10.8M). The trial court judge’s jury instructions allowed the jury to cumulate awards against each defendant for the same infringements, rather than forcing them to make a single award joint-and-several. The appeals court fixed that perplexing error.

Even so, the lesson remains that any web host that fails to promptly honor takedown notices–copyright or trademark–does so at extreme peril. We don’t have an express notice-and-takedown scheme for trademarks, but we’ve gotten there on a de facto basis.