ARE WEB SEARCHERS IMMUNE TO INITIAL INTEREST CONFUSION?

Recent case law suggests that the theory of trademark infringement on the Internet based on initial interest confusion may be on the wane, and that companies may feel more comfortable including trademarks other than their own in their Website metatags and purchasing advertisements keyed to another's mark.

Metatags are words invisibly embedded in Web pages. They cause search engines such as Google to identify the tagged Web pages in response to queries containing the tagged term. Many trademark practitioners have objected to the practice of including trademarks other than one’s own in metatags on Websites.

The basis for the objection is initial interest confusion. The theory of initial interest confusion is that a consumer looking for a particular product, if wrongly directed to the source of a similar product, may buy the similar product instead. Picture, for example, a hungry family looking for McDonald’s who see a sign pointing east and follow it to Mac’s Diner. When they arrive, they might just eat at Mac’s rather than doubling back and continuing to search for McDonald’s. Translated to the Web, the thought is that if a competitor were to include the words “Fox Rothschild” in its metatags, one who sees the competitor’s site in the list of sites returned by search for “Fox Rothschild” might go to the competitor’s site instead of the Fox Rothschild site.

At least two courts this year have now rejected the initial interest confusion theory for Internet users. The first was the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit in Toyota Motor Sales v. Tabari, 610 F.3d 1171. In that case, Judge Kozinski wrote:

When a domain name making nominative use of a mark does not actively suggest sponsorship or endorsement, the worst that can happen is that some consumers may arrive at the site uncertain as to what they will find. But in the age of FIOS, cable modems, DSL and T1 lines, reasonable, prudent and experienced internet consumers are accustomed to such exploration by trial and error. They skip from site to site, ready to hit the back button whenever they’re not satisfied with a site’s contents. They fully expect to find some sites that aren’t what they imagine based on a glance at the domain name or search engine summary. Outside the special case of trademark.com, or domains that actively claim affiliation with the trademark holder, consumers don’t form any firm expectations about the sponsorship of a website until they’ve seen the landing page—if then. This is sensible agnosticism, not consumer confusion. So long as the site as a whole does not suggest sponsorship or endorsement by the trademark holder, such momentary uncertainty does not preclude a finding of nominative fair use. (citations omitted.)

The Massachusetts Superior Court adopted the same reasoning earlier this month in Jenezebar v. Long Bow Group, quoting portions of the Toyota opinion and elaborating that: “This court finds that this initial uncertainty does not qualify as confusion and is an inevitable part of Web searching.”

These two cases suggest a possible trend of judicial skepticism regarding initial interest confusion as a theory of trademark infringement on the Internet.
 

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