Liability of online market portals vis-à-vis trademark infringement in the cyberspace

With the emergence of globalization and sharp advancement of technologies, our society and its knowledge making has also changed steadily. The scope and range of knowledge has expanded and is only a click away, due to the expansion of digital connectivity. However with every pro come the cons. Infringements of copyrighted works are considered as big threats hampering the growth of the Internet, e-commerce and digital economy. The amendment to the Information Technology act 2000, in the year 2009 did gave a fillip to IPR issues in cyber law, however one of the major issue that is still untouched is the issue of secondary liability for trademark infringement on 3rd parties involved in some manner in the sale, advertising, shipment or other activities relating to the goods/services in cyberspace.

Before dealing with the Indian Scenario, it would indeed be pertinent to deal with the international perspective of labiality of operators of online market portals vis-à-vis trademark infringement in cyberspace.

Before proceeding further it is significant to know the concept of secondary liability. The concept of secondary liability is a common principle of law of torts, which arises when a party materially contributes to, enables, induces, or is otherwise responsible for directly or contributory-infringing acts carried out by another party. It is wellspring of unfair competition law. There are two kinds of secondary liability:

  1. Vicarious liability: It is a stricter liability amongst the two as the law of tortimposes responsibility upon one person for the failure of another, with whom the person has a special relationship, to exercise such care, as a reasonably prudent person would use under similar circumstance.[1]
  2. Contributory liability: It is a tortious liability for soliciting and aiding and abetting, the infringement, i.e. if a manufacturer or distributor intentionally induces another to infringe a trademark, or if it continues to supply its product to one whom it knows or has reason to know is engaging in trademark infringement, then the manufacturer is liable for contributory liability[2].

While the concept of Vicarious Liability comes into picture when:

  • The third party has the right and ability to control the actions of the direct infringer; and
  • The third party derives a direct financial benefit from the infringement.

The notion of Contributory liability comes when:

  • The defendant knows of the infringement; and
  • The defendant materially contributes to the infringement.[3]

One of the earliest cases, which dealt with this principle, was the case of Kalem Co. v. Harper Brothers[4], while the landmark case that dealt with Secondary Liability in Trademarks was Inwood Laboratories v. Ives Laboratories[5]

While in India we still haven’t got the opportunity to give a verdict on the issue, but the judgments of Court of Justice of the European Union[6] and US Federal Court[7] comes as a guiding force on the subject.

L’Oréal v. eBay International AG[8]

Facts:

  • The proceedings was between L’Oréal SA and its subsidiaries Lancôme parfums et beauté & Cie SNC, Laboratoire Garnier & Cie, on one hand, while eBay Inc. and subsidiaries on the other regarding the sale of L’Oréal products on the online marketplace operated by eBay without L’Oréal’s consent.
  • L’Oréal was a manufacturer and supplier of perfumes, cosmetics and hair-care products, which operate a closed selective distribution network, in which authorised distributors are restrained from supplying products to other distributors. On the other hand eBay operates an electronic marketplace, which provides platform to sellers to set up online shops on eBay sites. Thereafter eBay facilitate prospective buyers to bid for items offered by sellers.
  • On 22 May 2007, L’Oréal communicated its apprehensions to eBay about the widespread incidence selling of counterfeit goods on the site. And soon a trademark infringement case was filed against eBay.
  • The Court of Justice of emphasized and considered whether the display of the sign (which is identical to the registered mark), in the sponsored link, constitute “use” of L’oreal’s trademarks ‘in the course of trade’. Or whether eBay could claim immunity from secondary liability under provisions of the EU E-commerce Directive.

Judgment:

  • The role of online marketplace operator cannot be assessed under Directive 89/104 or Regulation No 40/94, but must be examined under rule and laws set out under Directive 2000/31 (Section 4 of Chapter II)(‘liability of intermediary service providers’) along with Articles 12 to 15 of that directive.
  • In order for an Internet service provider to fall within the scope of Article 14 of Directive 2000/31, it is essential that the provider be an intermediary provider within the meaning intended by the legislature in the context of Section 4 of Chapter II of that directive.
  • It was held by the Court of Justice that eBay has not used the registered trademark ‘L’oreal’s’ in its own commercial communications, but has simply displayed the sign or selected keywords corresponding to L’Oréal trade marks on Google search engine in order to offer sale to prospective buyers. In that context the operator of the online marketplace was just acting as an advertiser. However the court held that the proprietor of a trade mark is entitled to prevent an online marketplace operator from advertising his trademark as the goods offered on sale through advertisement does not enable reasonably well-informed and reasonably observant internet users, and makes it difficult for prospective buyers to ascertain whether the goods concerned originate from the proprietor of the trade mark or from an undertaking economically linked to that proprietor or, on the contrary, originate from a third party.
  • The court while assessing what construes ‘active role’ under Article 14 under Directive 2000/31 stated that “the operator plays such a role when it provides assistance which entails, in particular, optimizing the presentation of the offers for sale in question or promoting them.” Therefore the court held that the defendant did not play any active role in the same regard, however the court stated that if the operator of the internet market was aware of facts and circumstances that there unlawful offer of sale were being executed at his portal and still did not take any step to prevent the same then he is exempted to take any exemption from the liability.
  • Due to the s reasons stated above the court granted injunction in favor of L’Oréal.

Tiffany (NJ) Inc. v. eBay, Inc.[9]

Facts:

  • In 2002 eBay had implemented a “fraud engine,” which is principally dedicated to ferreting out illegal listings, including counterfeit listings. The fraud engine incorporated Tiffany-specific filters too. A page named, “About Me” was also maintained by Tiffany and not eBay. The headline of the page was “BUYER BEWARE,” & the page began: “Most of the purported TIFFANY & CO. silver jewelry and packaging available on eBay is counterfeit.”
  • In 2004 Tiffany & Co sent a number of notices to eBay stating to remove counterfeit products of the brand and by 2005 Tiffany & Co. filed injunction suit in the district court in order to shut down the legitimate secondary market dealing in Tiffany goods.

Judgment:

  • The District court rejected the allegations of Tiffany that eBay had directly infringement its trademark. Rather the court said that eBay’s was protected by the doctrine of nominative fair use[10]. As a result, an appeal came before the circuit judge.
  • The bench relied on the two-prong test while awarding its judgment:
  1. Whether the plaintiff’s mark is entitled to protection, and
  2. Whether the defendant’s use of the mark is likely to cause consumers confusion as to the origin or sponsorship of the defendant’s goods.

The court discussed the case under 4 heads:

  1. Direct Trademark Infringement
  2. Contributory Trademark Infringement
  3. Trademark Dilution
  4. False Advertising
  • Direct Trademark Infringement: The bench observed “defendant may lawfully use a plaintiff’s trademark where doing so is necessary to describe the plaintiff’s product and does not imply a false affiliation or endorsement by the plaintiff of the defendant.” The court also observed that eBay promptly removed all listings that Tiffany challenged as counterfeit and took affirmative steps to identify and remove illegitimate Tiffany goods. As a result the court observed that eBay’s use of Tiffany’s mark in the described manner did not constitute direct trademark infringement.
  • Contributory Trademark Infringement: The court rejected to apply Inwood test[11] as it observed that eBay clearly possessed generalized knowledge as to counterfeiting on its website which makes it insufficient to impose any penalty on the issue. The court also observed that it was the duty of the plaintiff to establish the ‘knowledge’ of contributory infringement. The court agreed with the decision of the district court that eBay was not willfully blind[12] to the counterfeit sales of Tiffany.
  • Trademark Dilution[13]: The court rejected Tiffany’s dilution by blurring claim on the ground that “eBay never used the TIFFANY Marks in an effort to create an association with its own product, but instead, used the marks directly to advertise and identify the availability of authentic Tiffany merchandise on the eBay website.”
  • False Advertising: The court of appeal rejected the argument that eBay advertised the sale of Tiffany goods on its website, and because many of those goods were in fact counterfeit, eBay should be liable for false advertising and that the advertisements at issue were not literally false because authentic Tiffany merchandise were also sold on eBay’s website, even if counterfeit Tiffany products are sold there, too.
  • In conclusion the court approved with the district court’s judgment that eBay’s use of Tiffany’s mark on its website and in sponsored links was lawful and that eBay as an operator of online market was not liable for any trademark infringement.

 

Louis Vuitton Malletier, S.A. v. Akanoc Solutions, Inc[14]

Facts:

  • Vuitton filed trademark and copyright infringement against the defendant, Akanoc on the context that the defendant sold counterfeit replica LV goods. The plaintiff had earlier too given several notices to the defendant him to remove the infringing products.
  • The suit was assessed under 4 heads:
  1. Contributory trademark infringement,
  2. Vicarious trademark infringement,
  3. Contributory copyright infringement, and
  4. Vicarious copyright infringement.

Judgment:

  • The court while relying on the case of Applied Info. Sciences Corp. v. eBay, Inc.[15] held that in order to establish direct infringement of a trademark, a plaintiff must show:
  1. Ownership of a valid trademark, and
  2. A likelihood of confusion resulting from a defendant’s alleged infringing use.

The court while discussing the case held that third parties have infringed Plaintiff’s copyrights and trademarks.

  • While deciding the issue of Contributory Trademark Infringement the court replied their judgement on the test of Inwood Lab[16]. The court found that the defendant had actual or constructive knowledge knowledge of trademark infringement of the rightful proprietor Louis The court observed that the defendant had the ability to terminate websites by unplugging an entire server or disable individual IP addresses and thereby remove websites using their servers. As a result the court observed that the defendants knew third parties were infringing Plaintiffs trademarks and remained wilfully blind despite his ability to terminate its services to those third parties.
  • While deciding the issue of vicarious liability it was important that the direct and second infringer shared some relation[17] amongst each other. The Defendant Chen stated in his declaration that he have never known any operators of websites as he does not directly deal with infringing website operators.
  • As a result the jury granted injunction in favour of plaintiff and awarded $10,500,000 for contributory trademark infringement/counterfeiting against each of the defendants making it a total of $31,500,000 as damages.

Conclusion

While deciding the liability of trademark infringement 3rd parties on the virtual market it is significant and vital to know the Inwood Lab test. If someone directly “monitors and control” the instrumentality of infringement, then such person would be held liable for such trademark infringement. While discussing landmark cases of different countries it is pertinent to note that different courts held totally an unlike and distinctive opinion while the dealing with the same issue or subject in hand.

Where while examining the Tiffany case on one hand, the court emphasized on the importance and significance of actual and constructive knowledge of an breach, on the part of the secondary infringer in order to establish a contributory trademark liability on the part of operators online marketplaces, there on the other hand, the judgment of CJEU in L’Oréal v. eBay International AG, the court gave stricter ruling while assessing the liability of the online market operators. The court in the case of L’Oréal held that the proprietor of a trademark registered in a Member State had the right to prevent offers for sale or advertising even online of good associated with his registered trademark.

The court in the case of Tiffany (NJ) Inc. V. eBay the court have stressed the ‘control‘ element an operator posses on the part of the secondary infringer and held that the defendant did not have any direct control on the infringing goods, hence was liable to be set free without and damages. The Court in the case of L’Oréal giving a firmer judgment said eBay’s advertisements created an evident association between the registered trademarked goods and online market site, which eventually created an adverse effect on the registered trademark. The court also held the advertisements eBay had not only contravened the interests of fair trading but had also violated consumer protection rules laid down by Directive 2000/31 Article 6.

The jury in Louis Vuitton Malletier case gave a much firmer, securer and accurate judgment stating that the defendant not only provided its services to the infringing party but also had a direct control and monitoring of the instrumentality used by a third party to infringe. The court siad in order the prove an infringement case against an online market operator it was imperative to show that contributory infringer was assisted with actual or constructive knowledge of trademark infringement. While passing a deterrent judgment, the court awarded statutory damages of $31,500,000 in favour of the plaintiff for contributory trademark infringement.

Convenient for international courts, they have appropriate legislations and directives that would help them deal with the subject. The Indian courts have yet to address the issue critically and bridge this important gap of liability of 3rd part in a trademark infringement in the cyberspace. Fortunately the international courts have critically analyzed the subject and have set an enlightening, fitting and instructive path for Indian courts.

Indian jurisprudence on “liability of online market portals vis-à-vis trademark infringement in the cyberspace” will be dealt by me in my next blog.

About the Author:

Ms. Shireen Shukla, a legal intern at Khurana & Khurana, Advocates and IP Attorneys articulates her finding on the International jurisprudence on the labiality of operators of online market portals vis-à-vis trademark infringement in cyberspace.

[1] The Free Dictionary: http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/vicarious+liability

[2] Justice O’Connor, Justice Burger, Justice Brennan, Justice Blackmun, Justice Powell, Justice Stevens & Justice Marshal in Re: Inc. v. Ives Laboratories, Inc., 456 U.S. 844, 102 S. Ct. 2182, 72 L. Ed. 2d 606 (1982)

[3] Michael J. McCue: Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie: Secondary Liability for Trademark and Copyright Infringement; last visited as on 5th April, 2017 <https://www.lrrc.com/secondary-liability-for-trademark-and-copyright-infringement-02-05-2012>

[4] 222 U.S. 55 (1911)

[5] 456 U.S. 844 (1982)

[6] L’Oréal v. eBay International AG

[7] Tiffany (NJ) Inc. v. eBay Inc. 600 F.3d 93 (2d Cir. 2010)

[8] C-324/09

[9] 600 F.3d 93 (2d Cir. 2010)

[10] “it allows the defendant to use a plaintiff’s trademark to identify the plaintiff’s goods so long as there is no likelihood of confusion about the source of the defendant’s product or the mark-holder’s sponsorship or affiliation.”

[11] i.e. if a manufacturer or distributor intentionally induces another to infringe a trademark, or if it continues to supply its product to one whom it knows or has reason to know is engaging in trademark infringement, then the manufacturer is liable for contributory liability

[12] Where a person suspects that users of its service are infringing a protected mark (suspects wrongdoing), and that he shields himself by deliberately failing to investigate by giving a blind view to the issue.

[13] The Federal laws of US allows the owner of a “famous mark” to enjoin a person from using “a mark or trade name in commerce that is likely to cause dilution by blurring or dilution.

[14] 658 F.3d 936 (9th Cir. 2011)

[15] 511 F.3d 966, 972 (9th Cir. 2007).

[16] The plaintiff must establish that the defendant:

  1. Intentionally induced the primary infringer to infringe, or
  2. Continued to supply an infringing product to an infringer with knowledge that the infringer is mislabeling the particular product supplied

[17] That the defendant and the infringer have an apparent or actual partnership, have authority to bind one another in transactions with third parties or exercise joint ownership or control over the infringing product.

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