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Don’t Even Think About It: Negative Ad Words and Trademark Injunctions

A U.S. District Judge has enjoined a defendant from using a term for its business. That is not an unusual result. The one part of the order that may be of note is that the defendant is not allowed to purchase ad words using the plaintiff’s mark and the defendant must use negative adwords as well on search engines. Here is the pertinent language:

[Defendant is enjoined and restrained] from purchasing or using any form of advertising including keywords or “adwords” in internet advertising containing any mark incorporating Plaintiff’s Mark, or any confusingly similar mark, and shall, when purchasing internet advertising using keywords, adwords or the like, require the activation of the term “ORION” as negative keywords or negative adwords in any internet advertising purchased or used.

So here the mark is Orion. The defendant has been found to have infringed. The normal range of prohibited future activities is in place. But in addition, the defendant must take steps to prevent its appearance on a search engine results page when someone is looking for the plaintiff’s services. The court explains:

For purposes of this court order, a “negative keyword” or “negative adword” shall mean a
special kind of advertiser keyword matching option that allows an advertiser to prevent its advertisement from appearing when the specific terms are a part of a given user’s internet search or search string. It does not infer that the Defendant may use the specified negative keywords or adwords for any other purpose.

Now it seems the defendant was rather blatantly trying to use the plaintiffs mark (counsel appeared but an answer was not filed). Yet, if the plaintiff’s mark and business match the litany of strength that the court offers (‘ranked fourth in the nation among community bank holding companies and thrifts for outstanding performance,” “In June of 2006, Plaintiff was ranked as Florida’s Top Performing Community Bank for the second consecutive year, and was also ranked among the nation’s top performing bank holding companies,” “In June of this year, American Bankers Association’s (ABA) Banking Journal, ranked Orion Bancorp, Inc., fifth in the nation for outstanding financial performance”), wouldn’t a competitor want to be able to appear when someone searched for the premiere bank of the region? Shouldn’t that be allowed?

Given the facts of this case, the defendant may have behaved so badly that such an option is not merited. Still as a general matter, one might infringe but still be allowed to compete. Requiring active steps so that one’s business does not appear in a search result goes a bit far. In a world of virtual shopping, attention is a key lever in building business. Many of the facts of this case point to infringement. But the negative adword limitation essentially stops someone from competing online. The concern is that the smaller player will barely be able, if at all, to get in someone’s face and say yes the larger company exists but so do we.

As larger matter, the Dinwoodie/Janis Dogan/Lemley use debate may inform this issue. Still, if I remember correctly, Dinwoodie and Janis think comparative advertising is a good thing but that use is not the way to protect it. Rather they offer that better injunctions will address the contextual issues. Rebecca Tushnet’s Gone in 60 Milliseconds: Trademark Law and Cognitive Science also merits a read as it questions harms based on association which seems to be part of the negative adwords solution here.

cross-posted at Concurring Opinions