Bring your discomfort bag (revised and expanded)

Originally posted 2007-01-08 10:50:09. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

Technology & Marketing Law Blog: “The keyword advertising legal roller-coaster continues.”

The roller coaster I would not ride

As someone who is on that thrill ride — at least partly on the dime of my clients (as in the Buying for the Home case) — it is of course troubling for an expert such as Eric Goldman to acknowledge this. It is somewhat of a vindication, though, not least of the fact that attorneys practicing in this area really have no business telling clients they have any idea what the outcome of cases implicating these issues might be, no matter how well we think we know the law.

That’s fine as far as it goes. But what about the law? It is distressing enough to tell your client that his case involves an unsettled area of law and that two courts faced with similar facts could well come to different conclusions about the application of the “same” law to those facts. (It can even happen in the same case, as Eric points out in his commentary on Buying.) It is preposterous, however, that your client could get slammed on damages or, in theory, attorneys’ fees — which require a finding of willfulness, mind you — because courts are still feeling their way around.

What a fine opportunity for Congress to step in and provide guidance via legislation — for these angels dancing on the heads of virtual pins are in fact not so much legal decisions at all but real, live policy decisions: Shall the Lanham Act regulate, as a trademark infringement, the utilization of trademarks as search terms in Internet or other computer-based software engines?

This is not the case every time a trademark and the Internet get involved with each other. In the context of past trademark-on-the-Internet disputes, notably involving domains (which the world once thought would be the alpha and omega of trademark battlegrounds on the Web), we have argued that the issues at stake are not novel “cyberlaw” questions but merely require the application of hoary principles of unfair competition to somewhat novel situations. But that argument simply does not stand when we consider the search engine question. It is pedestrian to observe that Congress could not have contemplated this or that application of a law when it passed it. The common law tradition abjures us from such arguments. It is the job of judges to apply the law which affects the decisions we make about conduct to new factual situations by the application of analogy tempered with equity.

Yesterday you said tomorrowBut we are in a new world. When courts make fundamentally different conclusions about a question or cluster of questions — in this case whether trademarks are even “used,” as understood in the Lanham Act, by search engines [UPDATE:  See here.  They are.] It is time to recognize that these legal questions are political questions implicating not only law but commerce at all different levels, as well as technology and the shape of the Internet to come. Not everyone has the stomach for roller coaster rides. Let those who do have their fun. The rest of us, lawyers and clients alike, are entitled to the option of standing on terra firma while conducting our affairs. This is our stop.

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Author:Ron Coleman

I write this blog.

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