Customer reviews on social media provide important evidence in trademark dispute

Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. v. Chipotles Grill of Jonesboro, Inc., 2011 WL 2292357 (E.D. Ark. June 9, 2011)

The awesome burrito place Chipotle sued another restaurant that called itself Chipotles for trademark infringement. Plaintiff sought a preliminary injunction. The court granted the motion.

One of the most important factors in the court’s decision to grant injunctive relief was the plaintiff’s showing that it will likely succeed on the merits of the case. In a trademark infringement action, that analysis takes the form of the likelihood of confusion analysis.

Among the factors that a court should consider in determining whether there is a likelihood of confusion is whether there has been any actual confusion among members of the consuming public. In this case, the court found that the evidence plaintiff submitted of actual confusion was “substantial.”

In addition to a number of emails that customers had sent to plaintiff, the court looked to a couple of customer review sites — and Yahoo’s — each of which contained customer reviews that erroneously linked plaintiff and defendant. The court found this to constitute actual confusion, which could not be remedied even through reasonable care on the part of the consumers.

The case gives a good example of how companies (and their competitors) should be aware of how their brands appear in social media. Evidence of actual confusion is a powerful tool for a trademark plaintiff (and a potentially damning one for a trademark defendant). Smart companies will ensure they remain aware of how their marks and overall brand identity are being put forth, even off the beaten path on the web.

Evan Brown is a Chicago-based attorney practicing technology and intellectual property law. Send email to, call (630) 362-7237, or follow on Twitter at @internetcases.

Court allows discovery of competitor’s keyword purchases

Scooter Store, Inc. v., LLC, 2011 WL 2160462 (S.D. Ohio June 1, 2011)

The Scooter Store and a related company sued a competitor for trademark infringement and other causes of action for unfair competition based in part on the competitor’s purchase of keywords such as “scooter store” and “your scooter store” to trigger sponsored advertisements on the web. Defendant moved for summary judgment and also moved for a protective order that would prevent it from having to turn over information to plaintiffs concerning defendant’s purchase of the keywords. The court denied the motion for protective order.

Defendant argued that it should not have to turn over the information because plaintiffs’ trademark claims based on those keywords were without merit, as the words are generic terms for the goods and services plaintiffs provide. Defendant also asserted a need to protect the commercially sensitive nature of information about its keyword purchases.

The court rejected defendant’s arguments, ordering that the discovery be allowed. It held that “whether or not [p]laintiffs’ claims involving these terms survive summary judgment [] has no bearing on whether the discovery [p]laintiffs seek is relevant, particularly viewed in light of a party’s broad rights to discovery under Rule 26.” As for protecting the sensitivity of the information, the court found that such interests could be protected through the process of designating the information confidential, and handled accordingly by the receiving party.

Blog post violated nonsolicitation clause in Amway agreement

Amway Global v. Woodward, 2010 WL 3927661 (E.D.Mich. September 30, 2010)

Amway Global went after some of its former distributors in arbitration for, among other things, violating the “Rules of Conduct” which serve as an agreement as to how the distributors (formally known as Independent Business Owners or “IBOs”) operate. Amway claimed that the IBOs violated the Rules of Conduct by soliciting others to leave Amway and join competing enterprises.

The arbitrator found in Amway’s favor, and Amway filed a motion with the court to confirm the award. The court granted the motion.

One of the factual questions was whether one of the IBOs violated the rules against solicitation by blogging about his decision to leave Amway and join another company. One of his posts said “[i]f you knew what I knew, you would do what I do.”

The IBOs argued that this statement did not constitute actionable solicitation because the communication was passive and untargeted, and because there was no evidence that anyone responded to the solicitation by leaving Amway.

The court rejected these arguments. As to the “passive and untargeted” argument, the court observed that:

[C]ommon sense dictates that it is the substance of the message conveyed, and not the medium through which it is transmitted, that determines whether a communication qualifies as a solicitation. The [statement] is readily characterized as an invitation for the reader to follow his lead and join [Amway’s competitor], and this is true despite the diffuse and uncertain readership of the site.

As to the argument based on the fact that no one responded, the court found that the express language of the nonsolicitation clause which prohibited “encourag[ing], solicit[ing], or otherwise attempt[ing] to recruit or persuade any other IBO to compete with” Amway did not turn on the success of those prohibited efforts.

Results of Internet searches helpful in earthworm trademark case

Cascade Mfg. Sales, Inc. v. Providnet Co. Trust, 2008 WL 4889716 (W.D. Wash. November 12, 2008)

Cascade Manufacturing makes and sells composting bins in which earthworms “enhance and accelerate the composting process.” Cascade owns a federal trademark registration for WORM FACTORY. It sued its competitor Providnet Co. for trademark infringement over Providnet’s use of the mark GUSANITO WORM FACTORY. Cascade moved for a preliminary injunction against Providnet’s use of its “worm factory” mark. The court granted the motion.

Worms enhance and accelerate composting
Worms enhance and accelerate composting

One of Providnet’s arguments against the injunction was that “worm factory” is a generic term for the types of products being sold under the respective marks. To refute this contention, Cascade introduced evidence of Internet searches supporting its claim that the products at issue are referred to as “worm bins,” and that “worm factory” refers to Cascade’s particular product. The court found this evidence to be instructive.

Earthworm picture courtesy Flickr user Rick Harris under this Creative Commons license. Redistributed here under the same license.

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