eBay Shines in Tiffany Trademark Fight

In Tiffany v. eBay, decided today, the Southern District of New York gives helpful bounds to secondary liability for trademark infringement, saying eBay is not liable for its use of the term "Tiffany" nor for its sellers' sales of counterfeit goods. Judge Sullivan's careful analysis leaves the path clear for online marketplaces to flourish, putting enforcement burdens, where they belong, on trademark claimants.

First, the court finds eBay's advertisement, through "Tiffany"-keyed adwords on Google and Yahoo! searches, to be "nominative fair use." Some eBay sellers are offering genuine Tiffany merchandise, as trademark law recognizes is legitimate, and eBay has the right to use the brand name to identify them, rather than "absurd circumlocutions ... [such as] 'silver jewelry from a prestigious New York company where Audrey Hepburn once liked to breakfast.'" Even if search keywords are "use in commerce," therefore, the court finds them non-infringing.

Second, the court holds eBay not liable for the infringements of its users, under either direct or secondary liability theories. Instead, its contributory liability test looks much like the notice-and-takedown regime that the DMCA sets up for copyright: only specific knowledge of infringement can trigger liability, a "showing that a defendant knew or had reason to know of specific instances of actual infringement"; not the "generalized" knowledge of counterfeiting Tiffany would like to attribute to eBay. The court does not impose any prior monitoring obligation, implying only that a defendant must take appropriate steps after being notified of claimed infringement. (The court helpfully notes several times that Tiffany's "Notices of Claimed Infringement" are just claims, not proof, and that some listings have even been reinstated after incorrect claims.)

"[T]he fact remains that rights holders bear the principal responsibility to police their trademarks." Trademark holders are best situated to assess the provenance of their branded goods and to weigh the costs and benefits of enforcement. The marketplace benefits from a rule that leaves lawsuits to the endpoints, keeping intermediaries relatively safe and clear.

Finally, the ruling suggests that trademark law continues to function effectively in the Internet era. While trademark holders might like greater control, and (some) sellers might like greater leeway, trademarks serve as indications of origin even without enlisting intermediaries in the fight. Yet further reason why ACTA's proposed "update" to anti-counterfeiting trade law should not put liability on Internet intermediaries.

cross-posted from Legal Tags.


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