Best of 2010: Forget breakfast — eBay eats Tiffany’s lunch

Originally posted 2010-12-23 08:00:54. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Tiffany's NYC The Second Circuit, unsurprisingly according to most commentators, has affirmed the decision of the Southern District of New York refusing to find eBay liable for contributory trademark infrintgement in the Tiffany v. eBay case.  I have been following the case since before it was filed (yeah, bitter as usual!) and have written bunches of posts on it — see, look?

In terms of the Second Circuit opinion itself, you can find that here.  If at some point I have something really original to say about it–after all the blogging is done by everyone else–you’ll be the first to know.  But here’s a little roundup of “takes.” First, the WSJ Law Blog on the thrust of the story:

So long as eBay takes steps to remove listings it knows are bogus — and isn’t otherwise willfully blind to fraudulent sales — it can avoid liability, the court ruled.  Judge Robert Sack, writing for the three-judge panel, seemed to hang his hat on the “market”:

We are disposed to think, and the record suggests, that private market forces give eBay and those operating similar businesses a strong incentive to minimize the counterfeit goods sold on their Web sites . . .

EBay received many complaints from users claiming to have been duped into buying counterfeit Tiffany products sold on eBay. The risk of alienating these users gives eBay a reason to identify and remove counterfeit listings. Indeed, it has spent millions of dollars in that effort. . . .

Tiffany had argued that eBay knew it had a problem with counterfeit items being listed on its Web site and did little to clean it up. EBay insisted the obligation rested with the New York jeweler to identify and alert it to auctions of counterfeit Tiffany silver jewelry.

But that’s not the whole story, exactly, though it mostly is.  As Law.com’s Corporate Counsel explains:

The court sent the case back to the district level for more discussion of whether eBay may be guilty of false advertising because it promotes the presence of “Tiffany” products on its site in both direct advertisements and paid ads that pop up when users search for Tiffany on Google and other search engines.

Those ads could be deemed false, because eBay is aware that “a significant portion” of goods advertised as Tiffany items on eBay are actually counterfeit, the court said. (The exact percentage of counterfeit Tiffany items among all those advertised is in dispute). EBay has pointed out that its site contains a special “About Me” page for Tiffany (and controlled by Tiffany) in which users are told that any Tiffany item advertised for sale on eBay is likely to be a fake.

To win a false advertising claim, Tiffany will have to produce evidence that consumers were confused by the advertisements, the court said. So far, Tiffany has not produced that sort of evidence, which usually comes in the form of consumer surveys.

Usually?  Well, usually if anyone’s actually watching, I guess.  Anyway, some more–here’s a great article by a partner at Pattishall McAuliffe (the law firm that bears the name of my late trademark law prof)  named Uli Widmaier that gets to the heart of the matter (I’ve removed the citations for bloggy reading and added a link or two):

In other words, for a defendant to be liable for contributory trademark infringement, the defendant must have knowledge of specific individuals engaged in infringing activities. General knowledge that infringing activity might take place is not enough. This is an application of the “narrow standard” of contributory liability articulated in Inwood Laboratories, Inc. v. Ives Laboratories, Inc. eBay argued in the district court that this standard did not apply, but accepted the Inwood standard for purposes of the appeal.  Thus, the Court “assume[d] without deciding that Inwood’s test for contributory trademark infringement governs.

Tiffany had also argued that eBay was “willfully blind” as to the sale of counterfeit Tiffany goods on eBay’s website. The Court stated that, as a general matter, “[a] service provider is not, we think, permitted willful blindness. When it has reason to suspect that users of its service are infringing a protected mark, it may not shield itself from learning of the particular infringing transactions by looking the other way.” However, the Court declined to impose liability for contributory trademark infringement on this ground because “eBay did not ignore the information it was given about counterfeit sales on its website.”

In sum, the Second Circuit affirmed that a service provider is not permitted to be willfully blind to alleged trademark infringement. But eBay’s removal of listings identified as counterfeit by Tiffany, as well as eBay’s affirmative steps to police its website for counterfeiters were enough to render eBay not willfully blind. Had eBay done less, it might have been found liable. Unfortunately, the decision gives very little guidance as to the dividing line between “willful blindness” and sufficient vigilance.

Great point.  There’s something about trademark law that, for some reasons, makes judges want to make lawyers and businesses guess about liability until it’s too late.  As usual, Eric Goldman gets that, too:

In a subtle opinion with potentially significant implications, eBay has preserved most of its big 2008 district court victory in the long-running Tiffany v. eBay case. However, as seems to be the norm with federal appellate opinions, the opinion intentionally sidesteps some key open doctrinal questions squarely raised by the case–such as if the Second Circuit recognizes the nominative use defense, or the Second Circuit’s standards for contributory trademark infringement. As a result, we don’t get the clean and decisive doctrinal standards that help make a case truly precedent-setting; if anything, some aspects of the case are pretty eBay-specific. And while the opinion is generally a win for defendants, there are at least two tangents (the willful blindness standards and the false advertising discussion) that future plaintiffs will unquestionably explore.

So you’ll want to explore that at Eric’s blog.  You’d almost think Eric weren’t merely a law professor, but someone who has to advise clients about how to run their businesses and about litigation choices–someone who wonders why judges make it so hard to do that in trademark law, as I do.

Don’t you?

And as for the substance of the matter–which, let’s not kid ourselves, is policy-making, for nothing in the Lanham Act really speaks to this question, and Congress will not do its job of making the policy here–I still stand, lonely-like, by my original, dogmatic view.  “Everyone” seems to agree that as long as eBay does just enough to “respond” to “specific” complaints of the sale of counterfeit goods, it can profit, and handsomely, from the sale of those that are caught too late, or not at all, and bear none of the burden of preventing such sales proactively.

Willful blindness, evidently, is a good standard to spank flea market zhlubs who “should have known” vendors who rent tables from them are selling counterfeit goods.   It doesn’t apply, however, to billion-dollar companies that are “too big to be liable” as contributory infringers or even  accountable after the fact on some level (disgorgement?)  for the millions they rack up in commissions on counterfeit sales.

Ah, yes, but doesn’t the Circuit say, as quoted above?:

But we are also disposed to think, and the record suggests, that private market forces give eBay and those operating similar businesses a strong incentive to minimize the counterfeit goods sold on their websites. eBay received many complaints from users claiming to have been duped into buying counterfeit Tiffany products sold on eBay.  The risk of alienating these users gives eBay a reason to identify and remove counterfeit listings. Indeed, it has spent millions of dollars in that effort.

I’m disposed to think exactly the opposite–because:

  1. the law will not punish them for failing to do so;
  2. notwithstanding “many complaints” (it’s that Lanham Act “rigor” at work once again!),  most buyers of counterfeits want to buy counterfeits.  It’s not a matter of quality control:   These days, everyone except Archie Bunker who spends $45 for a “Rolex” knows exactly what he’s buying.  But unless and until “private market forces” eliminate trademark law, notwithstanding that the sale of a fake Rolex or Tiffany item is entirely between “consenting adults,” it’s still an unlawful transaction;
  3. the “millions of dollars” spent by eBay was spent precisely to obtain an opinion like this by a court that doesn’t really “get it”; and
  4. eBay makes money selling counterfeits!  Even the Circuit had to acknowledge this fact, which it does in a little-bitty footnote and then completely ignores [this reason is an UPDATE].

Whether or not this is really the last word is an open question.  Tiffany is quoted as saying they’ll appeal, and they probably will.  Most of the anti-counterfeiting bar is, notwithstanding their public stance uniting behind Tiffany in this case, hoping they’ll just shut up and go home.  As one big figure in that community said to me,

There’s a reason the Vuittons and the Rolexes of the world didn’t sue eBay in the U.S. on this issue, at least not now.  This was the wrong case at the wrong time brought by the wrong plaintiff.

And for that reason the last thing my colleagues at the IACC and INTA want to see is the Supreme Court driving their delicate, evolving positions on this issue further into the ground with a decision affirming that old law school adage that “bad facts make bad law.”

The good thing, though, is that the Supreme Court is unlikely to touch it.  Because remember what I said about judges and the Lanham Act. They seem to want a fence to remain around trademark law, lest anyone get too close and actually be able to predict what the law might be.  Something about a judge loves a fence, I guess–and not only fences like eBay.

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Author:Ron Coleman

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