Corporations Sue Google over Results for Competitors

From NPR, via Slashdot

Internet search engine Google says it is deciding whether to appeal a decision by a French court that has implications for its lucrative advertising model. The court ordered Google to stop displaying ads for competitors of Louis Vuitton when users searched for the luxury goods maker. There are similar cases being brought in the United States.

What if the customer was specifically searching for Louis Vuitton knock-offs? Google is an independent search engine, and I would think “ad searches” should be encompassed by that definition. If Google helps someone find a Louis Vuitton knock-off purse and that’s what they were after it doesn’t seem fair for LV to sue Google over that.

If you buy that argument then I think it boils down to this: What was the intent of the customer when they entered their search terms? Obviously, Google can’t know the intent of the customer.

Is there a trademark issue in here? Can you prevent competitors from using your trademark? Can you place an ad in a newspaper that says, “Knock-off Louis Vuitton Purses for Cheap”? What Google does is kind of like placing an ad like that in a newspaper right next to a series of articles about Louis Vuitton.

Placing an ad for a competitor next to an article about a particular company isn’t illegal; it happens all the time. The only reason it doesn’t happen more often is newspapers and magazines generally consider it a poor practice: it hurts the reputation of the newspaper. Using the trademark name of a competitor isn’t illegal either: if you use it correctly. You can’t use the trademark in any way that diminishes their brand or confuses/misleads the customer.

For example, you couldn’t use the “LV” logo in an add for Knock-off LV purses, that clearly diminishes their brand. Advertising “Knock-off Lousis Vuitton” purses… I’m not sure about that. That’s kind of like advertising “Immitation Pepsi at low prices” instead of “Coke: It’s better than Pepsi.” But this is still very different from what Google is doing: they are trigging a competitors ad based on a keyword search that may contains a trademark. The ad doesn’t necessarily contain any reference to LV.

Can you imagine the fallout from this? If everyone started suing Google over this then they would need to maintain a database of trademarks and start red-flagging ads that appear on trademark searches. Google might even need to go so far as to investigate every AdWords customer to find out what trademarks they are competitors of. Could Google just offload this onto their AdWords customers? What if you signed a waiver that said that you wouldn’t write AdWords that trigger on keyword searches for your competitor? Oh my, what a mess that would be.

I don’t think what Google is doing should be illegal. Just like the newspaper/magazine example above, it should be considered poor taste. Triggering ads based on competitor keyword searches hurts Google’s relationship with the primary trademark holder. Google won’t be getting any discounts on $200 LV bags for now, they’ll just have to go into downtown SF and pick up the knock-offs for $10. 🙂

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