By Jeffrey Pietsch

In 2006, Federal District Courts throughout the country were asked to decide if purchasing and using trademark-protected keywords to trigger internet advertising constitute trademark violations as contemplated by the Lanham Act. Unfortunately for advertisers, these rulings were inconsistent. In 2007, this trend continues with the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruling in J.G. Wentworth v. Settlement Funding, LLC, No. 06-0597 (E.D. Pa. Jan. 4, 2007). In J.G. Wentworth, the court siding with advertisers, ruled that using trademark-protected words to trigger internet advertising does not violate trademark law.

J.G. Wentworth (“Wentworth”) and Settlement Funding (“Settlement”) are finance companies that specialize in providing immediate cash payments in exchange for the rights to future payments from structured settlements, annuities, and other assets. Plaintiff, Wentworth, is the market leader for these types of products and holds trademarks that are heavily promoted through television and internet advertising. Wentworth sued Settlement for using Wentworth’s trademarks to draw internet traffic to Settlement’s website.

Settlement used Wentworth’s trademarks in two ways. The first manner in which Settlement used the trademarks was through Google’s AdWords program. Using Google’s internet search engine, internet users search Google’s database of websites by entering keywords. Based on these keywords, Google presents an ordered list according to relevancy to the user. The user then is able to click on any website link they desire. With Google’s AdWords program, advertisers can place bids on certain keywords. When the advertiser’s keyword is entered into the search engine, the advertiser’s link to their website is displayed in the “Sponsored Links” section of the web page. Each time a user clicks on this link, the advertiser pays Google a fee. Settlement used keywords “J.G. Wentworth” and “Wentworth” to increase traffic to their website. Whenever a user typed in the keyword “J.G. Wentworth,” a sponsored link advertising Settlement’s website would appear alongside the other search results. Wentworth maintained that Settlement’s use of the J.G. Wentworth trademark in this manner infringed upon plaintiff’s trademark rights.

The second manner in which Settlement used Wentworth’s trademarks was in the keyword portion of Settlement’s meta tags of its website. Meta tags are hidden code imbedded in websites to help search engines determine the relevancy of web pages to particular search terms. Wentworth asserted that Settlement used plaintiff’s trademarks in their meta tags to increase traffic to their website whenever the term “J.G. Wentworth” was searched. Whenever a user typed in “J.G. Wentworth” into a search engine, links to Settlement would appear in the search results. Wentworth also claimed that this use of Wentworth’s marks infringe upon their trademark rights.

Based on these uses, Wentworth sued Settlement for intentionally confusing customers as well as diverting potential customers from their website to Settlement’s site.   Wentworth claimed that not only was defendant stealing customers, Settlement was eroding the distinctiveness of Wentworth’s mark causing loss profits for Wentworth. 

To determine if the there was a trademark violation, Wentworth needed to establish that (1) the mark is legally protectable; (2) the mark is owned by Wentworth; and (3) Settlement’s use of the mark is likely to create confusion concerning the source of the goods and services. The issue in this case centered on the third prong, specifically, did Settlement use the mark in commerce and did that use create consumer confusion.

The court first addressed whether or not the purchase and use of a trademark-protected keyword to trigger internet advertising constitutes a use in commerce as contemplated by the Lanham Act. Courts have been divided on this issue. Some courts have taken the position that there can be no liability unless a trademark is used in a way that identifies the products and services. (Wells Fargo & Co. v., Inc., 293 F. Supp. 2d 734, 757 (E.D. Mich. 2003)). Since the meta tags and the Google AdWords program are invisible to the public and do not identify the source of the goods, there can be no “use” of the trademark. 

Other courts have taken the opposite approach on this issue. In examining a similar issue concerning Google’s AdWords program, a New Jersey District Court held that using this technology did satisfy the “use” requirement. (Buying for the Home, LLC v. Humble Abode, LLC, 2006 WL 3000459 (D.N.J. Oct. 20, 2006)). The court reasoned that purchasing another’s trademark to trigger advertising was a “use” because it entailed a purchase in commerce based on the value of another’s trademark while being used to trigger advertising for goods and services. Siding with the New Jersey court, the present court found that Settlement’s uses of Wentworth’s trademarks constituted “use” under the Lanham Act.

Finding that there was a use of the mark, the court had to determine if that use created a likelihood of confusion. Likelihood of confusion exists where “consumers viewing the mark would probably assume that the product or service it represents is associated with the source of a different product or service identified by a similar mark.” (Checkpoint Sys., Inc. v. Check Point Software Techs., Inc., 269 F.3d 270, 280 (3d Cir. 2001)). Courts have reasoned that initial interest confusion is actionable under the Lanham Act. Initial interest confusion occurs when a competitor misleads a potential purchaser into an initial interest in the competitor’s goods by using another’s trademark. This confusion is actionable even if confusion as to the source of the goods would be dispelled by the time the goods are sold. 

The court in this case acknowledged a Third Circuit opinion that did not apply initial interest confusion to meta tags and rejected a Ninth Circuit argument that found confusion does occur because the web-user is “directed” to certain websites. The court here held that as a matter of law, using Google AdWords and meta tags did not result in any actionable likelihood of confusion. The court based this decision on the belief that users choose among the search results presented to them. Users are not forced or “directed” to particular sites, and therefore, no initial interest confusion exists.

Since the court was unable to find a likelihood of consumer confusion from Settlement’s use of Wentworth’s trademarks, the court found for Settlement. Even though courts have gone back and forth on these issues, the Eastern District of Pennsylvania was the first court to rule as a matter of law that even if plaintiff’s trademarks are used to trigger ads or search results, plaintiff will lose if the trademarks are not displayed. Despite this ruling, courts are still widely split on this issue and will remain so until the Supreme Court rules.

Jeff Pietsch is an associate in the Business, Securities and Commercial Transactions and Intellectual Property groups at Weintraub Genshlea Chediak Tobin & Tobin. Jeff focuses his practice on representing public and private companies.