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Google AdWords – Advocate General’s Opinion

There are some news in regards to cases involving the question whether the use of trademarked keywords in Google AdWords constitutes a trademark infringement. The Advocate General Poiares Maduro has delivered his opinion on the joined cases C‑236/08, C‑237/08 and C‑238/08 involving Google (France), Viaticum Luteciel, CNRRH and others, previously ruled by the French Cour de Cassation.

This opinion is not to be confused with a judgement of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) nor is it in any way binding for the ECJ. But still – it is a first outlook on possible further developments, especially as there are also other similar cases (see also my earlier Google related posts here, here and here) pending with the ECJ.

The opinion is clearly guided by the principle that “…. it is important not to allow the legitimate purpose of preventing certain trade mark infringements to lead all trade mark uses to be prohibited in the context of cyberspace…”. The Advocate General also emphasises that “…it is not the use in ads, or on the sites advertised, that is the subject…” of his opinion.

In brief, the Advocate General concludes that the use of trademarked keywords by Google in its AdWords system (the selection process) does not constitute a trademark infringement. Trademark proprietors are referred to intervene “…when the ads are displayed to Internet users…”.

The opinion draws the following key conclusions:

1. The mere selection of a trademarked keyword in Google AdWords or a similar paid Internet referencing service without the trademark proprietor’s consent does not constitute a trademark infringement. Advertisers are not acting in the course of trade when selecting keywords because they are being sold these keywords by Google in relation to the AdWords service. Thereby the advertisers are acting as mere consumers which is private use.

2. A trademark proprietor may not prevent a provider of such services from making available keywords reproducing registered trademarks based on Article 5(1)(a) and (b) of Directive 89/104 and Article 9(1)(a) and (b) of Council Regulation (EC) No 40/94 as AdWords is not identical or similar to those covered by the trade marks.
More clearly the Advocate General rejects “…. the notion that the act of contributing to a trade mark infringement by a third party, whether actual or potential, should constitute an infringement in itself…”, arguing that otherwise newspapers would have to be prohibited as they could potentially be abused by third parties to infringe trademarks as well.

3. Neither may a proprietor of a trademark with a reputation prevent such keyword use based on Article 5(2) of Directive 89/104 and Article 9(1)(c) of Regulation No 40/94 as the other functions of the trade mark (e.g. guaranteeing the quality of goods, communication etc.) should not be considered to be affected as the Advocate General puts it. This conclusion seems vastly result oriented, based on the concern that “… if trade mark proprietors were to be allowed to prevent those uses on the basis of trade mark protection, they would establish an absolute right of control over the use of their trade marks as keywords. Such an absolute right of control would cover, de facto, whatever could be shown and said in cyberspace with respect to the good or service associated with the trade mark…”.

4. Paid Internet referencing services are no information society services consisting in the storage of information provided by the recipient of the service within the meaning of Article 14 of Directive 2000/31/EC. This means Google would not be exempt from liability under national law for featuring content constituting trade mark infringements. The argument is based on the aim of Directive 2003/31 which is to ensure the Internet as a free and open public domain. The Directive aims to achieve this by limiting the liability of those transmitting or storing information.  The Advocate General however argues, that the content featured in Google AdWords (the ads actually displayed) does not deserve this kind of protection as it originates from Google’s relationship with the advertisers and thus AdWords is not a neutral information vehicle.

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