24 April, 2019

It Ain't Bad - Advocate General Kotott Considers Bad Faith in TM Applications

Picking the right trademark can sometimes feel like it's the make-or-break moment for a brand, particularly when you are building a brand from nothing. Maybe taking 'inspiration' from a very well-known brand might be the boost you need, since people might naturally gravitate to your brand thinking it is another – but of course without meaning it is that one! Toeing the line of registering a trademark in bad faith is a tough one, since when is an application truly made in bad faith? This issue hasn't been touched on by the EU courts in a while, and in the lead-up to a CJEU decision Advocate General Kokott has given their two cents in a recently published opinion discussing this very issue.

The case of Koton Ma─čazacilik Tekstil Sanayi ve Ticaret v EUIPO concerned the application for the registration of a figurative mark by Nadal Esteban for the trademark "STYLO & KOTON", with the letters o written using symbols that look like flowers (EUTM 9917436). The application was opposed by Koton, who had earlier rights in the figurative trademark "KOTON", in which the letter o was also written using flowers. Koton argued that Mr Esteban's mark had been registered in bad faith, and should be declared invalid. After a rejection most recently by the EUIPO General Court, the matter has moved for determination by the CJEU, with the AG issuing their opinion ahead of the decision.

Under Article 52(1)(b) of the Trade Mark Regulation, an application can be declared invalid if the applicant was acting in bad faith when filing the application. For the Article to apply the mark applied for has to be identical or similar for identical or similar goods/services to the third-party mark being 'copied'. The General Court rejected Koton's argument under this premise since the mark being applied for was in relation to dissimilar good/services.

The AG emphasized that in assessing bad faith you have to, in addition to the above "…take into account all the relevant factors specific to the particular case which pertained at the time of filing the application". Factors in considering bad faith could include a lack of intention of using the mark at all, or the intention to use it in order to mislead consumers over the origin of goods or services. This could also include the attempt to register a mark knowing or thinking that registration by another would be imminent (i.e. registering iPad thinking Apple might start a line of tablets).

The AG therefore considered that based on the variety of factors raised by the AG (as discussed above) "…It is not therefore essential for recognition of bad faith that a third party is using an identical or similar sign for an identical or similar product or service capable of being confused with the sign for which registration is sought". Bad faith can include the registration of a similar or identical mark for wholly unidentical goods/services. 

The General Court had not considered Mr Esteban's earlier application as a factor when assessing bad faith, which was refused, for identical goods and services. After the EUIPO rejected his application Mr Esteban changed the goods and services included in his application and the mark was registered. The AG considered this to be an important factor and one that needed to be included. What the earlier application allows an inference to be drawn as to his intentions at the time of filing.

This highlights just how different bad faith is to other causes for invalidity, as it "…is not an inherent defect in the trade mark itself, but stems from the circumstances in which it was applied for". An application also cannot be divided into good and bad faith parts under Article 52 of the Regulation, but must be looked at as a whole in the light of bad faith. As such the AG saw that "…The fact that an application was originally filed for a trade mark for goods and services in respect of which the applicant knew or should have known that identical or similar trade marks existed may in any event be an important indication that the application to register that trade mark for other goods or services was also filed in bad faith".

The General Court also failed to properly assess whether Mr Esteban's defense to bad faith had any 'economic logic'. Having considered the new factor, and Mr Esteban's defense to bad faith, the AG concluded that the application had indeed been filed in bad faith.

While we wait for the CJEU's decision in the matter, it seems that the Advocate General has highlighted important oversights made by the General Court.

11 April, 2019

A Host of Problems - US Court of Appeals Decides on Copyright and Hosting User Uploaded Content

This writer fondly remembers the early days of the Internet when it felt like a totally lawless, open and free space where users could do whatever they wished with whatever they wanted. As the Internet has become more ubiquitous and 'corporate' this had to be reined in, and legislation has slowly caught up to how people use the Internet. One still meddling piece that the legislature and the courts have struggled with is user-uploaded content, where the service provider merely provides the platform for uploading content (infringing or not), and does not actively do it itself. With this in mind, where do you draw the line between freedom and intermediary liability when it comes to user-uploaded content? The US Court of Appeals recently issued an important decision trying to take on this issue.

The case of VHT Inc. v Zillow Group Inc. concerned Zillow, an online marketplace for real estate. VHT is a photography company who take professional pictures of houses and apartments that are then used to illustrate the location for sale to prospective buyers. VHT saves these pictures onto a centralized database, where they are given to clients under a license, which Zillow receives from various real estate related sources. VHT subsequently sued Zillow for copyright infringement for its use of VHT's pictures in its "Listing Platform" and "Digs" pages, exceeding the scope of the licenses issued to VHT's customers.

The first aspect of the case dealt with direct infringement, particularly in the context of Zillow's automated systems. While ownership in the copyright of the works can be easily established, infringement requires direction causation, i.e. volitional conduct. What this means is that "...'direct liability must be premised on conduct that can reasonably be described as the direct cause of the infringement'". What remains key here is who the ultimate selector of the content is; Zillow or the end-user. In order for Zillow to have liability VHT would have to "...show [the alleged infringer] exercised control (other than by general operation of [its website]); selected any material for upload, download, transmission, or storage; or instigated any copying, storage, or distribution" of its photos".

Zillow's systems operate on licensed feeds provided by external third parties, and the providers guarantee those licenses are up to date and authorized. The Court considered that this automated system didn't involve any volitional conduct on part of Zillow, not supporting an argument of direct infringement. This and the various rules within Zillow's systems protected it from direct infringement. Even when notices were filed on behalf of VHT, Zillow acted promptly and removed any infringing images. Overall the Court, therefore, rejected VHT's argument of direct infringement.

Even with this in mind, the jury at first instance did, however, find that Zillow's Digs service did infringe directly on VHT's rights. In considering the evidence issued to the jury, the Court overturned the jury verdict of direct infringement, as VHT had not presented substantial evidence of infringement.

A cozy one bedroom with easy street access and a unique facade
The Court then turned to the matter of fair use in relation to the Digs service. As a short primer, fair use allows for the use of copyright-protected works under certain situations. This is assessed looking at four specific factors: (1) the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes; (2) the nature of the copyrighted work; (3) the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and (4) the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work. In short, the user would have to do something different with the work, and the more it deviates from the original the more likely it is that fair use applies (in essence), i.e. whether it is 'transformative' or not.

How Digs operated was much like a search engine, allowing users to search for photos of apartments in specific styles or configurations. Recent case law has considered search engines to typically be transformative, but that is by no means a panacea to a claim of infringement.

In assessing the Digs service's features in relation to the first factor, the Court considered that it was not a transformative use, since, while the service tagged the photos and organized them, their intended use and nature remained the same; to display space in an apartment in an artful manner. The images didn't serve a different function from what VHT had intended them for.

In terms of the second factor, the Court quickly concluded that the creativity of the photos is critical to their nature, and therefore potentially deserve a higher degree of protection. While this is true, the fact that the photos were published on the listing platform for Zillow to use did work against them in a finding of non-fair use.

For the third and fourth categories, Zillow copied the entire images, which turned the third factor against them. As they were copied in their entirety, they had a direct impact on VHT's market for licensing photos, including to Zillow. The Court, therefore, rejected Zillow's argument of fair use.

The Court then moved onto secondary liability, which can be established if "...a party (1) has knowledge of another's infringement and (2) either (a) materially contributes to or (b) induces that infringement". A material contribution to infringement would require "...actual knowledge that specific infringing material is available using its system, and can take simple measures to prevent further damage to copyrighted works, yet continues to provide access to infringing works".

Most of Zillow's activities around the works were purely passive. Any evidence adduced in relation to those activities would not, according to the Court, fulfill the requirements for the second prong (even with knowledge of infringing materials). VHT argued that Zillow needed to take proactive steps to prevent infringement, including requesting the URLs of infringing works, which the Court promptly rejected. In the end, the Court considered that no jury would be convinced of secondary liability. In equal mesure, the Court rejected VHT's argument on vicarious liability.

The case is a very interesting one, and yet again demonstrates the difficult position internet services and search engines alike are when it comes to copyright infringement.