Google wins AdWords case

Google has won a major legal victory, with the European Court of Justice (the EU’s highest court) ruling that Google can continue to sell other companies’ trade marks as AdWords keywords (it was the use of the Loius Vuitton trade mark by a competitor that sparked the suit). This is seen as a major setback to the ability of companies to protect their brands. But the ruling does not green-light all manner of trade mark infringement. Advertisers must still not engage in misleading, deceptive or other infringing conduct in relation to a trade mark. The Court said (via press release):

Google has not infringed trade mark law by allowing advertisers to purchase keywords corresponding to their competitors’ trade marks. Advertisers themselves, however, cannot, by using such keywords, arrange for Google to display ads which do not allow internet users easily to establish from which undertaking the goods or services covered by the ad in question originate.

The Court said it will still be up to EU member courts to assess, on a case by case basis, whether the particular way in which an advertiser has used its AdWords is confusing or deceptive – if so, standard trade mark infringement remedies will apply. Whether the service provider (i.e. Google in this case) could be found liable would depend on:

“whether the role played by that service provider is neutral, … is merely technical, automatic and passive, pointing to a lack of knowledge of, or control over, the data which it stores. If it proves to be the case that it has not played an active role, that service provider cannot be held liable for the data which it has stored at the request of an advertiser, unless, having obtained knowledge of the unlawful nature of those data or of that advertiser’s activities, it failed to act expeditiously to remove or to disable access to the data concerned”.

Service provider role recognised

The ruling draws a clear distinction between the service provider – which would avoid liability if it played merely a “neutral”, “passive” role – and the user of the service (i.e. the advertiser). There seems to be a growing acceptance of the need to make this distinction with online services. Other recent examples include an earlier UK ruling on defamation (again involving Google) and the iiNet case in Australia (currently under appeal).

This ruling applies only to Europe. Other trade mark claims have been brought and settled elsewhere, and further challenges will no doubt arise. But this ruling by the EU’s highest court is a strong endorsement of Google’s position. Due to the conforming nature of the internet, and the relatively consistency of trade mark law globally, the decision is likely to influence any challenge against Google in New Zealand.