Thursday, April 01, 2010

2d Cir. decision rejecting Tiffany's allegations that eBay liable for sale of counterfeit goods

The Second Circuit today affirmed judgment in favor of eBay and against Tiffany in Tiffany’s much-publicized case against eBay for permitting the sale of counterfeit Tiffany products in its on-line auctions. The case involved significant rulings in the area of (1) buying “sponsor links” on Internet search engines using others’ trademarks, and also (2) as to the liability of an on-line auction site for hosting sales of counterfeit goods.

In Tiffany (NJ) Inc. v. eBay Inc., No. 08-3947 (2d Cir. Apr. 1, 2010), the Second Circuit first rejected Tiffany’s claim of direct trademark infringement. Although eBay bought Yahoo! sponsor ads/links using Tiffany’s trademark, the court found that this was a nominative fair use of the Tiffany mark, because Tiffany goods were in fact available on eBay.

The Second Circuit next rejected Tiffany’s claim that eBay contributorily infringed the Tiffany marks by facilitating the sale of counterfeit goods at auction. Citing the Supreme Court’s familiar standard from Inwood v. Ives, 456 U.S. 844 (1982), and decisions from other circuits concerning flea markets, the Second Circuit first ruled that eBay exerted substantial enough control over the auctions on its site to potentially be subject to contributory liability. But because eBay effectively stopped known instances of counterfeiting pursuant to its various programs designed to stop sale of counterfeit and infringing goods, the Second Circuit ruled that eBay did not run afoul of the Inwood v. Ives prohibition against continuing to permit sales of known counterfeit items or permit known counterfeiters to continue to list on eBay.

Tiffany pointed to evidence that nearly three-quarters of its goods sold on eBay are counterfeit. The Second Circuit, however, rejected the notion that generalized knowledge that many counterfeit items are being sold can trigger contributory liability under Inwood v. Ives, particularly in view of the substantial anti-counterfeiting steps that eBay has implemented. In so doing, the Second Circuit admitted that it was adopting a somewhat narrow reading of the Inwood v. Ives standard of continued support in the face of a “reason to know” of infringing activity. The court also noted that such generalized knowledge does not rise to the culpable level of “willful blindness.”

The court also quickly dispatched Tiffany’s trademark dilution claim (because eBay did not itself use the Tiffany marks).

Finally, the court remanded Tiffany’s claim of false advertising for the district court to determine whether any of eBay’s ads were implicitly misleading as to the nature of the Tiffany goods that were listed on eBay.

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