photo © 2010 Martin Lafrance | more info (via: Wylio)
One of my blog’s posts that has been attracting a huge user attention and hence traffic is the one relating to the case of Louis Vuitton et al vs Google. I wrote it some months ago with the purpose to cover the highly controversial opinion of Poiares Maduro, being the Advocate General assigned to this case. As many others interested in this matter, I was waiting for the final ruling to be delivered by the European Court of Justice. Well, yesterday was the day – the ruling, having the potential to prove not lesser controversial than the preceding opinion, is out and I will fulfil my promise and discuss it hereunder.
The Court had to deal with the separate proceedings that the three claimants, Louis Vuitton, Viaticum and Mr Thonet had raised against Google in France. All three claims had reached the highest French court – the Cour de Cassation. That court decided to stay the proceedings and to refer the following questions to the ECJ:
- Must Article 5 (1) (a) and (b) of the First Trade Mark Directive (the Directive) and Article 9 (1) (a) and (b) of the Community Trade Mark Regulation (CTMR) be interpreted as meaning that Google who makes available to advertisers keywords reproducing or imitating registered trade marks and arranges by its AdWords to create and favourably display, on the basis of those keywords, advertising links to sites offering infringing goods is using those trade marks in a manner which their proprietor is entitled to prevent?
- In the event that the trade marks have a reputation, may the proprietor oppose such use under Article 5 (2) of the Directive and Article 9 (1) (c) of the CTMR?
- In the event that such use does not constitute a use which may be prevented by the trade mark proprietor under either the Directive or the CTMR, may Google be regarded as a “hosting” provider within the meaning of Article 14 of the E-Commerce Directive, so that that Google cannot incur liability until it has been notified by the trade mark proprietor of the unlawful use of the sign by the advertiser?
In answering the first question, the Court addressed whether Google (through its AdWords service) used the trade marks in the first place. The Court thereby opined that Google did not and I personally find the Court’s reasoning more than remarkable. Accordingly, not even the fact that Google operates its AdWords “in the course of trade” as it enables advertisers to select signs identical with trade marks as keywords and stores those signs and displays its clients’ ads on the basis thereof suffices to open Google’s dealing to a “use” within the terms of Article 5 of the Directive and Article 9 of the CTRM. This conclusion, the Court holds, is neither called into question by the fact that Google is paid by its clients for the use of those signs.
The Court, at least, grants a cold comfort to the trade marks proprietors by stating that Google’s clients used the signs identical with, or similar to, the proprietors’ trade marks and that, Google allowed its clients to use signs which are identical with, or similar to, trade marks, without itself having used those signs.
The logical questions that demands an answer would be respectively: is a proprietor entitled to prevent a client of Google to use signs which are identical with, or similar to, proprietor’s trade marks? The Court’s opinion thereto is rather restrictive and conveys once again bad news for trade marks proprietors: the exercise of that right must be reserved only to cases in which third party’s use of the sign affects or is liable to affect the functions of the trade mark. A proprietor, accordingly, cannot in general terms oppose the use of a sign identical with the mark if that use is not liable to cause detriment to any of the functions of that mark. With regard to the instant cases, the Court concluded that proprietors cannot prevent third parties from using keywords selected on Google’s AdWords and displayed in connection with goods or services identical with those for which that mark is registered, unless that ad enables an average internet user to ascertain that the goods or services referred to therein originate from a third party.
In answering the second question, the Court denied a “use” of Google within Article 5 (2) of the Directive or within Article 9 (1) (c) of the CTMR. However, third parties free-riding over well known and reputable trade marks and by this gaining advantages may be considered infringing such trade marks and be very well restrained from doing so.
In answering the third question, the Court found that Google was an information society service provider and was thus entitled to benefit from the liability exemptions guaranteed by the E-Commerce Directive with respect to such providers. The Court further pointed out that the mere facts that Google’s services were subject to payment, could not have the effect of depriving Google of the above exemptions from liability.
Overall, the Court acquitted Google, so to say, of all charges.
What does the ruling mean for the proprietors of trade marks? Well, I believe there are both, bad but also good news for those. The bad news are that the ruling weakens the proprietors’ exclusive rights in their trade marks. It literally scrapes a layer or even two from the exclusivity to use such trade marks.
The good news, however, consist in the legal certainty that this ruling provides for, as it also regards a row of questions that are of general importance for trade marks law. Put it another way – it is nothing but the eternal dilemma: is the glass half empty or just half full?
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