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ECJ: Advocate General says use of trademarks as keywords is ok!

Google is before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in connection with a French case in which a number of companies, including Louis Vuitton complained that Google had infringed their trademark rights by allowing advertisers to use company trademarks as keywords. The winner in the latest round: Google. An adviser to Europe’s highest court said that Google’s controversial practice was not illegal under European law. Google mays allow advertisers to select the keywords and also display ads for searches involving the keywords.

The opinion contains some interesting statements on the questions whether there is a likelihood of confusion or not:

"86.      By comparing ads with natural results, the parties assume that natural results are a proxy for ‘true’ results – that is to say, that they originate from the trade mark proprietors themselves. But they do not. Like the ads displayed, natural results are just information that Google, on the basis of certain criteria, displays in response to the keywords. Many of the sites displayed do not in fact correspond to the sites of the trade mark proprietors.

87.      The parties are influenced by the belief to which I referred at the outset – that if an internet user seeks something in Google’s search engine, the internet user will find it. However, that is not a blind belief; internet users are aware that they will have to sift through the natural results of their searches, which often reach large numbers. They may expect that some of those natural results will correspond to the site of the trade mark proprietor (or an economically linked undertaking), but they will certainly not believe this of all natural results. Moreover, sometimes they may not even be looking for the site of the trade mark proprietor, but for other sites related to the goods or services sold under the trade mark: for example, they might not be interested in purchasing the trade mark proprietor’s goods but only in having access to sites reviewing those goods.

88.      Google’s search engine provides help in sifting through natural results by ranking them according to their relevance to the keywords used. There may be an expectation on the part of internet users, based on their assessment of the quality of Google’s search engine, that the more relevant results will include the site of the trade mark proprietor or whatever site they are looking for. However, this is nothing more than an expectation. Confirmation only comes when the site’s link appears, its description is read, and the link is clicked on. Often the expectation will be disappointed, and internet users will go back and try out the next relevant result."

Trade marks which have a reputation enjoy special protection as compared with ordinary trade marks: their use can be prevented not only in relation to identical or similar goods or services, but also in relation to any good or service that takes unfair advantage of, or is detrimental to, the distinctive character or the repute of the trade mark. This special protection for trade marks which have a reputation does not depend on there being a risk of confusion on the part of consumers. But still, no trademark violation by Google, because:

In my opinion, it's too early for Google to celebrate. The Advocate General's opinion definitely is a huge victory, but the European Court of Justice still has to follow it. It often does, but e.g. last year in another internet law case, where it had to decide whether a service provider operating exclusively on the Internet is under an obligation to communicate its telephone number to clients prior to the conclusion of a contract, it did not ( The discussion about the use of trademarks as keywords has been going on for nearly a decade now, it has produced more than 100 judgements world-wide and uncountable articles on the subject and still, the Advocate General came up with some new legal considerations. I would expect some further surprises in the European Court of Justice judgement, although I find it likely that Google will win again.

So let's assume Google is not infringing trademark rights by allowing advertisers to buy keywords: In June 2009, Google has liberalized its trademark policy in 190 countries to conform it to its policy in the US, Canada, Ireland and the UK. Google does not block the sales of trademarked keywords in these countries. It is very likely that following a victory in the Adword lawsuit Google will liberalize its trademark policy in the EU member states, too. Maybe with one - at first sight surprising - exemption: France. No court there sided with Google in the AdWords lawsuits, although some found that Google did not commit a trademark violation. Instead they based Google's liability on the common civil principle of fault (Section 1382 of the Civil Code, which provides that "Any act whatever of man, which causes damage to another, obliges the one by whose fault it occurred, to compensate it.") So French courts might still find a way around a Google friendly decision by the European Court of Justice and there might be one more battle ahead for Google in France.

There is one more important point of the Advocate General's opinion, that is hidden in Footnote 72: We have an ongoing discussion in many EU member states about the liability of search engines for search results that lead to infringing content. The Advocate General says, that in his opinion a search engine may fall under the liability exemption provided in respect of "caching" in Article 13 of the E-Commerce-Directive 2000/31. That would pretty much exempt search engines from liability. If the European Court of Justice would side with this opinion, this would be another  important victory for search engines. But this point has no importance for the outcome of the AdWords lawsuits, so it remains to be seen if the ECJ makes some obiter dictum statements.




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