Rosetta Stone, Inc., which provides technology-based language learning products and services, sued Google in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia for direct and indirect trademark infringement and trademark dilution arising out of Google’s sale of Rosetta Stone’s trademarks as keywords in Google’s AdWords program. Google triumphed in the trial court, with the District Court granting summary judgment in favor of Google on all claims. Earlier this month, however, in Rosetta Stone, Inc. v. Google, Inc.,[1]  the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed the ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings on all trademark claims. For Google, the ruling means that it has no easy way to exit any trademark case arising out of its AdWords program. For brand owners, the ruling provides a road map for how to hold e-commerce web sites (Google, eBay) responsible for counterfeiters who advertise on the web site.

The primary issue in Rosetta Stone’s claim of direct trademark infringement was whether the Sponsored Links generated by Google’s AdWords Program create a likelihood of confusion. The District Court held that the only meaningful “digits of confusion” were Google’s intent in auctioning the keywords, the evidence of actual confusion, and the sophistication of the consuming public; and on each of these elements Rosetta Stone had failed to provide sufficient evidence to defeat summary judgment. The Fourth Circuit, after intense scrutiny of the evidence, disagreed with the trial court and held that there was sufficient evidence on each of these factors to force a trial.

The court’s analysis on the “intent” issue is remarkable. The record contained evidence of internal business studies done by Google that suggested that there would be “significant source confusion among Internet searchers when trademarks were included in the title or body of the advertisements.” Although the Rosetta Stone marks were not involved in these studies, the Fourth Circuit nevertheless held that these studies provided sufficient evidence “that Google intended to cause confusion in that it acted with the knowledge that confusion was very likely to result from its use of the marks.” Because Google’s studies were not specific to the Rosetta Stone marks, the reasoning of this holding appears applicable to every brand owner that asserts a trademark infringement claim against Google over its use of AdWords. In other words, the opinion indicates that any trademark plaintiff may be able to defeat summary judgment for Google on the “likelihood of confusion” issue by showing that Google was provided with evidence that confusion was “very likely.”

Google also gave up its win on the “functionality” doctrine, which holds that a functional product feature cannot be trademarked or the subject of a trademark infringement suit. Finding that the trademarks used as keyword triggers are functional because they are essential to the functioning of Google’s search service, the District Court had granted summary judgment for Google on this defense. The Fourth Circuit reversed, reasoning that the functionality doctrine affords no protection to Google because Rosetta Stone, the mark owner, did not use the marks as a functional product feature.

Also reversed was Google’s summary judgment on Rosetta Stone’s claim of contributory infringement, i.e., Rosetta Stone’s claim that Google is liable for trademark infringement by the advertisers who directly infringe Rosetta Stone’s marks in the Sponsored Links. The central issue was the evidence that Rosetta Stone had notified Google of approximately 200 instances of specific Sponsored Links advertising counterfeit Rosetta Stone products and that Google nevertheless continued to allow the very same advertisers to purchase Rosetta Stone marks to trigger Sponsored Links for other web sites owned by the advertisers. The trial court was “unpersuaded” that this evidence met the legal standard for contributory infringement set by the Second Circuit in its Tiffany v. eBay decision.[2] In the Tiffany case, the Second Circuit held that eBay was not contributorily liable for trademark infringement despite its general knowledge that sellers were selling counterfeit Tiffany products on eBay. The major difference between the facts in the two cases is that Tiffany’s demand letters, in Tiffany v. eBay, did not identify particular sellers who Tiffany thought were then offering or would offer counterfeit goods, whereas Rosetta Stone’s notification to Google, in Rosetta Stone v. Google, apparently did identify particular sellers who were offering or were likely to offer counterfeit products. This evidence, according to the court of appeals, sufficed to force a trial on the issue of whether Google contributed to trademark infringement by continuing to supply its services to known infringers.

In any event, the Fourth Circuit’s reasoning has clear practical implications for brand owners who are fighting counterfeiters: Diligently provide notice to the e-commerce site of the identity and web site of each counterfeiter who is or might be selling counterfeit products.

Not all the news was bad for Google. The holding that Google was not vicariously liable for infringement by counterfeiters was affirmed; and although Rosetta Stone is going to get its day in court, nothing in the Court of Appeals’ holding suggests that Rosetta Stone will be able to prevail at trial. Even so, this ruling was a significant setback for Google. Google, understandably, has been searching for a “safe harbor” to avoid entanglement in trademark disputes between online advertisers and brand owners over the advertiser’s use of the brand owner’s mark in Sponsored Links. One potential safe harbor for Google has already been eliminated by the Second Circuit in its 2010 holding in Rescuecom v. Google that Google’s sale of keywords constituted a trademark “use in commerce.” [3] It appeared that the District Court’s ruling in Rosetta Stone had given Google several additional “safe harbors” under the theories that Google’s mere sale of keywords did not create a likelihood of confusion, that Google did not contribute to infringement by supplying its services to known infringers, that Google’s keywords were merely functional, and that Google’s sale of keywords fell within the “fair use” exception to dilution; but now the Fourth Circuit has rejected the notion that any of these defenses shields Google as a matter of law from trademark liability for its AdWords program. For the foreseeable future, Google has no easy exit from any trademark suit based on its AdWords program.