15 April 2010

Consumers need not pay for delivery, when withdrawing from a distance contract

logo300 (2)photo © 2010 Pierre Rattini | more info (via: Wylio)

Have you been dispirited to buy things online due to uncertainty as to how far is the reach of your consumer rights? Then if you have, I may hereby present a ruling of the Court of Justice of the European Union (ECJ) that provides for more legal clarity and encourages consumers to rely on their rights guaranteed by the Directive 97/7/EC on the protection of consumers in respect of distance contracts.

In particular, the ECJ ruled that suppliers must not seek to recover delivery cost from consumers deciding to withdraw from a distance contract. Funny enough, but the expense underlying the instant case amounted to only EUR 4,95. Yes, you are reading it correct: EUR 4,95. I know, the question as to who on earth would bother the ECJ for that laughable sum would be fully appropriate, however to the extent that, German meticulosity was not concerned. I believe, we should thank the Germans for their soft spot for accuracy and morality thereby resulting in consumer protection in particular and in legal certainty in general.

Having said the above, one should, however, not forget the somewhat special German scheme to protect consumer rights. Germany maintains so-called “Verbraucherzentrallen” or associations for consumer protection which are in charge to observe and enforce consumer rights and interests. In the instant case the association for consumer protection in the province of Nord Rhine – Westphalia succeded in obtaining an injunction against an online supplier and will eventually win the case. As such associations are publicly funded, they do not necessarily fear a defeat in court proceedings. That is most probably the reason for said association’s zeal to go through all the instances for such a case.

From a legal point of view, the ECJ’s ruling is remarkable as it precludes national legislation that does not grant a buying consumer, upon their withdrawal, with an explicit right to reimburse the cost of delivering the goods previously ordered. By so ruling, the ECJ strengthens the consumer protection and bars a possible imbalance between suppliers and consumers in distance contracts.


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24 March 2010

Google’s AdWords do not infringe trade marks!

Google AdWords logophoto © 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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13 December 2009

The Federal Circuit invalidates business method patent on obviousness

In a recent patent infringement case, the US Court of Appeal for the Federal Circuit decided that claimant’s patent claims were infringed, but invalid as the Court held them obvious and thus non-inventive.

Claimant’s alleged invention claimed a “method of purchasing goods or services over a data network”. In fact the claimed invention offered an e-commerce platform to both purchasers and vendors and filtered their requirements in order to achieve a match between their demands. Could that be inventive nowadays? Upon outlining the existing prior art, the Federal Circuit said “No”.

Nothing unusual, at least from a european perspective.

24 November 2009

The US cares for data protection

IMG_1458photo © 2011 John Taylor | more info (via: Wylio)


Well, I agree the title of this post reads somewhat provocative. Nevertheless, it is driven by the criticism that European data protection practitioners usually express towards their US colleagues’ approach when dealing with privacy and protection of personal data.

This should not surprise as the right to privacy is a highly developed area of law in Europe. Accordingly, the European Union has long had a privacy framework for the processing of personal information that is different – and more restrictive — than privacy practices in the US. By contrast, the United States prefers what is called a “sectoral” approach to data protection legislation, relying on a combination of legislation, regulation, and self-regulation, rather than overarching governmental regulations (see “A Framework for Global Electronic Commerce“. To date, the US has no single, overarching privacy law comparable to the EU Directive.

The EU Data Protection Directive requires EU member states to provide for legislation that prohibits the transfer of personal data outside the EU. However, there are some exemptions from that rule, one of which applies where the EU has determined that the laws of the country of destination provide “adequate” protection for personal data. Among others, Switzerland and Argentina were determined to be such countries. In the late 1990s, the EU determined that the laws of the United States did not meet its adequacy standard.

However and in order not to totally prohibit the personal data transfer between the largest economies, the US Department of Commerce in consultation with the European Commission developed the “Safe Harbor Arrangement”. As a consequence, US companies that are under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission or the US Department of Transportation may enrol to that arrangement and process personal data submitted by European partners (subsidiaries) of theirs.

A company under the FTC’s jurisdiction that self-certifies its compliance with the Safe Harbor Arrangement, but fails to observe them may be subject to an enforcement action under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair or deceptive trade practices.

After a decade without any enforcement actions, the FTC recently proceeded against seven companies and obtained consent orders against them.

While these actions by the FTC are said not to represent substantive enforcement within the Safe Harbor Arrangement, they do signify that companies need to be even more vigilant about the content of their privacy policies and marketing assertions.

21 November 2009

Facebook faces class action for fraudulent game practices

YoVille Monetization Structure and Strategyphoto © 2009 i a walsh | more info (via: Wylio)

Do you have an account on Facebook? And are you probably tired of reading messages like “your friend XXX just won first place on Fraternity’s Drinking Bout”*? Well, such messages are likely to disappear or at least become less in future.

The reason behind is that Facebook and its social network games’ supplier Zynga are currently facing a class action for having fraudulently lured social networks users to lose money in online games, ads and quizzes.

The lead claimant in the case is a woman named Rebecca Swift, who has been charged over $165 as a result of accepting a “free” ad offer in exchange for YoCash usable in Zynga’s YoVille virtual world. She claims neither to have accepted an offer nor to have acted in an intent to be legally bound.

Both defendants counter that the ad offers in suit were provided by outside undertakings for whom they were not liable. The claimant, however, alleges the defendants displayed the fraudulent offers knowingly and were thus liable.

The suit seeks to obtain upwards of $5 million in damages.


*The game’s name is absolutely fictional.

6 May 2009

Consumer Rights: EU Commission wants consumers to surf the web without borders

The European Commission launched the eYouGuide, a new online tool giving practical advice on the “digital rights” consumers have under EU law.

This guide, which responds to a call from the European Parliament in 2007, addresses consumer issues like the rights towards your broadband provider, shopping on the web, downloading music and protecting your personal data online and on social networking sites.

Even though 48.5% of EU households have a broadband internet connection, a new Eurobarometer survey shows that a lack of confidence still holds many consumers back from online transactions.
Only 12% of EU web users feel safe making transactions on the internet, while 39% of EU internet users have major doubts about safety, and 42% do not dare carry out financial transactions online. 65% of internet users in the EU do not know where to get information and advice about cross-border shopping in the EU.

A third of consumers would consider buying online from another country because it is cheaper or better, but only 7% actually do so. Giving consumers clear information about their rights will increase trust and help unlock the full economic potential of Europe’s single online market, worth EUR 106 billion in revenues.