Just How Egregiously Must a Trademark Plaintiff Act Before a Court Awards Attorneys’ Fees to the Defendant?–1-800 Contacts v. Lens.com

By Eric Goldman

1-800 Contacts v. Lens.com, 2012 WL 113812 (D. Utah Jan. 13, 2012). Prior blog posts on the case dismissal in December 2010 and 1-800 Contacts’ fee dispute with its attorneys.

The federal trademark statute says judges may award attorneys’ fees to the winning party in “exceptional” cases. What does it take for a case to be “exceptional”? Apparently, it has to be pretty egregious conduct, as this long-running money pit of a case illustrates.

1-800 Contacts sued Lens.com for competitive keyword advertising. Through the course of the litigation, we learn the following facts:

* 1-800 Contacts accrued $650k in legal fees pursuing the case and capped its legal fees at $1.1M before it stiffed its law firm.

* the defendant Lens.com made less than $21 in profits from its competitive keyword ad buys. 1-800 Contacts also tried to attribute to Lens.com keyword ad buys made by Lens.com’s affiliates, a legal argument the court ultimately rejected.

* 1-800 Contacts had done the same thing it was suing Lens.com for doing. 1-800 bought Lens.com’s keywords and made about $220k in profit from those keyword ad buys, yet it had duplicitously tried to shut down Lens.com for making less than $21.

To me, this looks like an egregious misuse of the litigation process–exactly the kind of sanctionable behavior that should be considered “extraordinary” enough to make the plaintiff reimburse the defendant for its sizable legal fees. Indeed, the court has harsh words for 1-800 Contacts, including calling 1-800 Contacts’ behavior “troubling” and specifically referencing its hypocrisy for suing over behavior it had itself engaged in. The court also says “1-800 Contacts’ actions raise questions about vexatious suits to defeat competition.”

Nevertheless, the court decides not to award attorneys’ fees. The court cites the following factors in denying the attorneys’ fee request:

* the legitimacy of keyword advertising remains legally unsettled. Even when it was clear the direct infringement case was weak, 1-800 Contacts still had a non-frivolous claim for secondary infringement.

* Lens.com did engage in competitive keyword advertising, even if its purchases were “minuscule.”

* Lens.com itself was sanctioned for discovery violations.

* even though 1-800 Contacts’ expert reports were largely tossed, some of the reports were admitted.

It’s clear the judge had distaste for both parties. Lens.com also has a parallel antitrust claim going against 1-800 Contacts in a different forum, and the judge seemed to be deferring to that case to remediate any abuses by 1-800 Contacts. Still, given 1-800 Contacts’ condemnable conduct, it’s curious the judge didn’t stick them with a fee shift.

I think this ruling gives us some more insight into the trademark bullying phenomenon. The mockably ridiculous USPTO report on trademark bullying noted that trademark law’s fee shift provision acts as a deterrent against abusive trademark litigation. (For example, it says “the potential for an award of attorneys’ fees is an existing deterrent to misuse of the litigation process in trademark disputes.”) Given how hard it is to get a fee shift in light of a ruling like this, this was just another way in which the USPTO completely understated a very real problem in the field.