Friday, February 10, 2006

10th Circuit decision on unauthorized sales of genuine goods

The 10th Circuit recently issued an opinion in an interesting case involving issues of (1) unauthorized sales of genuine products and (2) use of the trademark holder's mark on the Internet in various ways.

In Australian Gold, Inc. v. Hatfield, No. 03-6218 (10th Cir. Feb. 7, 2006), the appeals court affirmed a jury verdict in which the plaintiffs were awarded a total of $550,000 in damages on their trademark infringement claims (and much more money for compensatory and punitive damages on their state law non-trademark claims).

The plaintiffs sold tanning products through authorized distributors to tanning salons who then sold to consumers. Distributors signed agreements that required them to undergo training sessions about the proper use of the products (which might not work properly or could even injure people if misused) so that the distributors could train their salon customers, and the distribution agreements also prohibited selling to anyone but real salons. The defendants, who were not salons, bought from rogue distributors who did not adhere to the re-sale restrictions, and the defendants in turn re-sold the products to anyone over the Internet. In connection with defendants' Internet sales, defendants used the trademarks on their websites, in their metatags, and in connection with a key word program run by search engine through which the defendants paid for enhanced search listings when users typed in plaintiffs' marks.

The defendants raised a number of defenses, but chief among them, at least as to the product sales themselves, was "first sale doctrine" -- the principle that it's OK for someone who buys the trademark holders' goods to simply re-sell them. The 10th Circuit rejected the first sale doctrine defense, however, because in its view the defendants went further than simply re-selling: they used the trademark on their website in a way that made it seem like they were authorized dealers when they actually weren't.

As to the use of the marks on defendants' websites, the 10th Circuit held that this created a likelihood of "initial interest confusion" because these trademark uses were an attempt to divert traffic seeking plaintiffs' products to defendants' websites. According to the court, this hurt the plaintiffs in several ways: First, since defendants also sold other companies' tanning products, the plaintiffs may have lost sales to competitors. Second, the plaintiffs lost opportunities for additional or upgraded sales that frequently occur when authorized tanning salon professionals handle the sales. Third, there was the potential for damage to plaintiffs' goodwill (or even lawsuits) if the products were misused due to lack of instruction from authorized tanning salon re-sellers.

As to the $$ amount of the damages, the court noted that it's really hard to quantify trademark damages, but held that the jury was within its rights to link the quantum of damages to the amount of money that the defendants had received in revenue for their unauthorized sales.

There are many other interesting issues in the court's discussion, but those are the highlights that jump out at me concerning the trademark issues.

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