When can you use a competitor’s trademark in a domain name?

The recent case of XPO CNW, Inc. v. R+L Carriers, Inc. coming out of a federal court in Michigan tells the interesting story of one company opportunistically using its competitor’s trademark in a domain name to set up an employee recruiting website. The decision sketches out certain circumstances when this practice passes legal muster.

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The parties to the dispute are major trucking lines. If you have driven on any highways in the United States, you have no doubt seen 18-wheelers bearing the trademarks of the parties involved in this case. In late 2015, plaintiff XPO acquired Con-Way Freight. Shortly thereafter, defendant R+L launched a website targeting Con-Way’s employees using the domain name conwaylayoff.com. The website included the following statement:

Were you laid off from Con-way? Don’t worry about the XPO Logistics acquisition, when one door closes another opens. R+L Carriers is hiring today….Turn your valuable years of knowledge and experience into a new career with R+L Carriers, which was named a Top National/Multiregional LRL Carrier in Logistics Management magazine’s 2015 Quest for Quality Awards. R+L Carriers launched Conwaylayoff.com to inform those employees that may have been affected by the recent acquisition of Con-way Freight, of similar opportunities that we have where they may be able to put their skills to work.

Plaintiff sued for trademark infringement and for cybersquatting under the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (“ACPA”). Defendant moved for judgment on the pleadings. The court granted the motion.

The court found there to be no sufficient allegations of trademark infringement because the documents before the court showed there was no likelihood of confusion as to the origin of defendant’s services. The language on the website (quoted above) contradicted plaintiff’s assertions of likely confusion.

On the ACPA claim, the court found there was no evidence that defendant used the domain name with a bad faith intent to profit.

The court compared this situation with the one in the case of Lucas Nursery and Landscaping, Inc. v. Grosse, 359 F.3d 806 (6th Cir. 2004). In Lucas Nursery, there was no evidence that defendant intended to divert consumers from the plaintiff’s online location. Nor was there evidence that defendant ever sought to mislead consumers with regard to the site’s sponsorship. The site explicitly stated that it was established for the purposes of relaying defendant’s experience with the plaintiff’s nursery. Moreover, there was no offer to sell the site to plaintiff, and no other indicators of bad faith existed, such as providing misleading contact information or acquiring batches of additional domain names.

In this case, it was undisputed that defendant set up a web site and used plaintiff’s trademark in the domain name. But this was insufficient to establish that defendant operated in bad faith. Plaintiff did not allege that defendant ever offered to sell the domain name to plaintiff. Nor did it allege that defendant acquired other suspect domain names. Instead, plaintiff offered the court a barebones recital of the statutory language, stating that defendant registered and has used the domain name without plaintiff’s authorization and with bad faith, to profit from plaintiff’s trademark, and that the infringing domain name directed or redirected to a website controlled by defendant, who profited from its use. The court found this to be insufficient to survive the relevant pleading standard. Accordingly the court granted the motion for partial judgment on the pleadings concerning this claim.

XPO CNW, Inc. v. R+L Carriers, Inc., No. 16-10391, 2016 WL 4801283 (E.D. Mich. September 14, 2016)

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jean-Pierre Magnan under this Creative Commons license.

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Fair use is a trademark concept as well

Ninth Circuit finds trademark fair use of name of online music site.

Webceleb is a “social marketplace for independent music.” It sued several defendants over the use of the term “web celeb” in connection with a television show award category and a section of an entertainment website. Defendants moved for summary judgment and the trial court granted the motion. Plaintiff sought review with the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed the award of summary judgment.

The court held that defendants’ use of the term “web celeb” was a classic fair use because:

  • the use of the mark was not a trademark use;
  • the use was fair and in good faith; and
  • the use was only descriptive

There was no trademark use because the term “web celeb” (at least according to the court) is “common parlance” for internet celebrities, which was what the award category was intended to recognize. And the use of “web celeb” in connection with the electronic magazine was merely descriptive of the online magazine’s content. The use was in good faith, as the evidence showed defendants were unaware of plaintiff’s mark when they created the “straightforward, descriptive title.”

The court came close to blaming the plaintiff for its own trademark woes:

Any minimal confusion here is the “risk the plaintiff accepted when it decided to identify its product with a mark that uses a well known descriptive phrase.” (Citing KP Permanent Make–Up, Inc. v. Lasting Impression I, Inc., 543 U.S. 111, 121–22 (2004))

That should serve as an instruction to all trademark adopters: While descriptive marks may do a good job of conveying information about a product, for the same reason the trademark owner may not enjoy as much protected exclusivity in the mark.

Webceleb, Inc. v. Procter & Gamble Co., 2014 WL 448648 (9th Cir. February 5, 2014)

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 — urbanspoon.com and Yahoo’s associatedcontent.com — 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 ebrown@internetcases.com, call (630) 362-7237, or follow on Twitter at @internetcases.

Court allows discovery of competitor’s keyword purchases

Scooter Store, Inc. v. Spinlife.com, 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.

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