19 September, 2017

Throwing a Flag - The Use of an Amazon Listing can be TM Infringement and Passing Off

With more sales of goods being conducted online, it is often very difficult to distinguish your goods from a cascade of others, particularly on third-party selling platforms like Amazon. How these platforms often work is either by listing individual sales in isolation, therefore potentially swarming the website with similar, isolated sales of the same goods, or by lumping them together in one entry, promoting the best price for the consumer from all of the sellers on that listing (how Amazon works, for example). But with this mixing of sellers on a given listing could there be trademark infringement or passing off in these instances over the original goods being sold? A recent Intellectual Property Enterprise Court decision looked at this very question.

The case of Jadebay Ltd & Ors v Clarke-Coles Ltd (t/a Feel Good UK) dealt with the sale of aluminium flagpoles on Amazon. Jadebay sold the flagpoles under the trademark "Design Elements" (UKTM 2653159) on the platform through a licensor, which were listed under the seller "DesignElements" on the website. The defendant, Feel Good, listed their equivalent flagpole, with a lower price, under the sale Amazon listing, ultimately becoming the default seller of the goods on the listing. The claimants took Feel Good to court, alleging both trademark infringement and passing off due to Feel Good's use of the listing for inferior, non-identical goods, also excluding the trademark as above.

Judge Clarke, the presiding IPEC judge for the case, first considered the matter of trademark infringement. Under section 10(2) of the Trade Marks Act 1994, a trademark is infringed if, in short, it is used in the course of trade and there is a likelihood of confusion on part of the public, including association with the registered trademark.

The use of a sign in the course of trade includes "…offering or exposing goods for sale, putting them on the market or stocking them for those purposes under the sign", or simply used "…in the context of commercial activity with a view to economic advantage and not as a private matter". A variety of principles are applied when considering a likelihood of confusion, set out in more detail in the decision of Comic Enterprises Ltd v Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation (discussed more here).

An alternate claim under section 10(3) of the TMA sets out that a trademark is infringed when it a person "…uses in the course of trade, in relation to goods or services, a sign which is identical with or similar to the trade mark, where the trade mark has a reputation in the United Kingdom and the use of the sign, being without due cause, takes unfair advantage of, or is detrimental to, the distinctive character or the repute of the trade mark".

Finally, the claim of passing off concerns the elements set out in Reckitt & Colman Product v Borden (discussed more here), which look at goodwill or reputation, misrepresentation leading to deception or a likelihood of deception, and damage resulting from the misrepresentation.

Judge Clarke then turned to analysing the issues at hand, starting with trademark infringement.

In her view, the average consumer would be an average flagpole-buying consumer, purchasing it for their home or commercial setting. The purchase would be driven by considerations of utility, quality and price rather than aesthetics or design, and that his purchase will be a considered one, rather than a whimsical or impulsive one, leading to an inclination of looking at the details and specifications of the listing used.

In terms of the use of the sign that was complained about, i.e. the name "Design Elements", the judge saw that it had been used by the Defendant. I her view "…[w]hether the sign complained of appears in the listing title itself, or in the descriptor 'by DesignElements', it still acts to indicate the origin of the goods for sale on the listing". The descriptor isn't merely a shop name, but an indicator of manufacturing origin, and a sign of their quality to the consumer.

Throwing your flags away isn't a viable option to avoid infringement
Looking at the actual similarities of the signed complained of and the registered trademark above, the judged had to consider their visual, aural and conceptual similarities (does it sound the same, look the same and cover the same or similar good/services). Their aural and conceptual similarities were not disputed by the defendant, so the judged quickly determined them to be identical. As to their visual similarity, the judge concluded that, as the trademark and the sign complained of share the same words in the same order, and while they are connected as one word, they are nonetheless separated by the capitalization of both words. Lastly, stylistically there were few differences between the two. Judge Clark therefore decided that the sign and the trademark had a high degree of similarity.

The judge then moved onto the next components in infringement. She swiftly determined that the sign is clearly used in the course of trade, and that it was used in relation to similar goods (i.e. the sale of flagpoles).

The next step is to establish a likelihood of confusion on the part of the average consumer. In her view, after a review of all of the circumstances, there was a high probability of a likelihood of confusion. This included factors such as the similarity of the sign and the trademark, careful consideration by the average purchasing consumer and the likelihood that the average consumer would think the product came from Design Elements. While she considered the lack of evidence of actual confusion, this didn't change the ultimate determination.

The judge concluded that there was therefore trademark infringement under section 10(2).

Judge Clark moved onto infringement under section 10(3). In looking at the trademark's reputation in the UK, the first limb of the test under the subsection, the judge saw that reputation in relation to the trademark only existed with the people who had bought a flagpole bearing the trademark. Without proper evidence as to the relevant public judge Clark couldn't establish that the trademark would have a reputation amongst a significant part of the relevant public. Infringement under section 10(3) therefore failed.

Finally, the judge turned to the claim of passing off, and determined that the defendant had passed off their goods as the claimant's.

It was quickly established that the claimant's business did have goodwill in the UK (albeit at a very low threshold on non-triviality). According to the judge, the sale of many flagpoles of a number of years, including garnering positive reviews, clearly demonstrated goodwill. The judge also agreed that a substantial number of members of the public would be misled by the defendant's listing, especially once the consumer would dive deeper into the details of the listing and the flagpoles themselves. Finally, the judge saw that almost every sale the defendant made would have been a lost sale to the claimant, and they had suffered damage as a result.

The case is quite the curious one, since it has, in effect, created a new type of trademark offense. Should someone use a pre-existing Amazon listing, they could potentially infringe on any associated trademarks, and would have to be careful to sell goods under that particular brand. The decision does set the bar quite high, and anyone selling authentic goods for a lower price would be safe, but anyone trying to ride the coat tails of a more well-known brand, selling inferior or different branded goods, might just fall foul of the precedent set.

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