Recent E.D. Pa. Case: No “Likelihood of Confusion” from Competitor’s Marks in AdWords

In CollegeSource, Inc. v. AcademyOne, Inc., Civ. A. No. 2:10-cv-03542 (MAM), slip op. (E.D. Pa. Oct. 25, 2012), the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania analyzed a claim of trademark infringement based on the purchase and use of a competitor’s trademarks in AdWords to increase search engine results. (The case dealt with other issues such as contract formation under Pennsylvania law, trademark cancellation due to fraud on the PTO, false advertising, violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and others. This blog post will focus solely on the AdWords issue.)

The court ultimately concluded that in an environment of increasingly sophisticated Internet advertising, a claim of trademark infringement based on the use of a competitor’s marks in sponsored links fails, when those marks do not appear in the actual advertisement and when the advertisements are set off in a separate section of the search results (under the heading “Sponsored Links,” set off with a different color than the rest of the search engine results). In these cases, modern Internet users are unlikely to be confused by this type of use.

In order to prove trademark infringement and unfair competition under the Lanham Act, plaintiffs must demonstrate that they own the mark in question, that the mark is valid and legally protectable, and that the defendant’s use of its own mark is likely to create confusion. Id. at 39 (citing Checkpoint Systems, Inc. v. Check Point Software Tech., Inc., 269 F.3d 270, 279 (3d Cir. 2001)). In the CollegeSource case, the defendant did not dispute the ownership of the mark or its validity, but instead challenged whether its mark was likely to create confusion.

The Lapp Factors

In the Third Circuit, the likelihood of confusion analysis is governed by Interpace Corp. v. Lapp, Inc., 721 F.2d 460, 463 (3d Cir. 1983) – the so-called “Lapp Factors.” These factors are: 

(1) the degree of similarity between the owner’s mark and the alleged infringing mark;
(2) the strength of the owner’s mark;
(3) the price of the goods and other factors indicative of the care and attention expected of consumers when making a purchase;
(4) the length of time the defendant has used the mark without evidence of actual confusion arising;
(5) the intent of the defendant in adopting the mark;
(6) the evidence of actual confusion;
(7) whether the goods, though not competing, are marketed through the same channels of trade and advertised through the same media;
(8) the extent to which the targets of the parties’ sales efforts are the same;
(9) the relationship of the goods in the minds of consumers because of the similarity of function; and
(10) other facts suggesting that the consuming public might expect the prior owner to manufacture a product in the defendant’s market, or that he is likely to expand into that market.

Id. at 463. Originally adapted from Polaroid Corp. v. Polarad Electronics Corp., 287 F.2d 492, 495 (2d Cir. 1961), these factors were applied in the Lapp case for the very limited purpose of considering likelihood of confusion where the products did not directly compete. Id. at 462-63; see also A&H Sportswear, Inc. v. Victoria’s Secret Stores, Inc., 237 F.3d 198, 206 (3d Cir. 2000) (“In Interpace Corp. v. Lapp, Inc., 721 F.2d 460, 463 (3d Cir. 1983), this Court established a ten-factor test (the ‘Lapp’ test) to determine the likelihood of confusion for direct confusion claims between goods that do not directly compete in the same market, but we have never decided what factors should be considered in the case of directly competing goods.”). 

In a later opinion, the Third Circuit applied these factors more broadly, including in cases where the goods competed in the same channels of trade. A&H Sportswear, 237 F.3d at 207 (“Though a court need not look beyond the marks when goods are directly competing and the marks virtually identical, we conclude that the factors we have developed in the noncompeting goods context are helpful tools and should be used to aid in the determination of the likelihood of confusion in other cases.”). The Third Circuit made clear, however, that the “ten-factor Lapp test [was developed] only as a guide” and the Lanham Act does not require that each of the ten factors must be evaluated in every case. Id.

Application of the Lapp Factors to Use of Competitor’s Trademarks as AdWords
In the CollegeSource case, the court relied on a Ninth Circuit opinion that identified the “key” factors to consider in cases where the goods directly compete and where a competitor’s trademarks were purchased as AdWords to generate search engine hits. Id. at 40 (discussing Network Automation, Inc. v. Advanced Sys. Concepts, Inc., 638 F.3d 1137, 1154 (9th Cir. 2011). Specifically, the Network Automation case held that in the context of AdWords cases, four of these factors were most relevant: “[1] strength of the mark, [2] evidence of actual confusion, [3] types of goods and degrees of care likely to be exercised by the typical purchaser, and [4] the labeling and appearance of the advertisements.” Network Automation, 638 F.3d at 1154.

The CollegeSource court agreed with this conclusion, and focused primarily on these four factors in determining whether the defendant’s use of the mark was likely to confuse. CollegeSource, No. 2:10-cv-03542, slip op. at 41. With respect to the first two factors, the CollegeSource court concluded: 1) the plaintiff’s mark (COLLEGESOURCE) was suggestive and commercially strong; and 2) plaintiff failed to provide significant evidence of actual confusion. Id. at 40-43. The court addressed the last two factors in reverse order, but these two provided the crux of the court’s analysis.

With respect to factor 4 (labeling and appearance of the advertisements), the court focused on the placement of ads in search engine results, noting that these ads are generally partitioned under a section of “sponsored links” and appeared separately from regular search results, sometimes in shaded boxes. Id. at 43-44. The plaintiff’s mark did not appear in the language of the advertisement. In this context, the court concluded that the offset of sponsored ads decreased the likelihood of confusion. Id.
With respect to factor 3 (types of goods and degrees of care exercised by typical purchasers), the court considered “whether an ordinary consumer seeking college transfer information via the Internet is expected to exercise diligence in his research.” Id. at 44-45. The court concluded that Internet users are exercising increasing care as the “novelty of the Internet evaporates and online commerce becomes commonplace.” Id. at 45. “Modern Internet users ‘are accustomed to such exploration by trial and error.'” Id. This increasing level of experience with search sites (i.e., the increasing sophistication of the targeted consumer) decreases the likelihood of confusion with respect to Internet advertisements like these. Id.

The Court continued to evaluate the remaining Lapp factors, finding that there was no evidence of an intent to confuse, that the Internet is not an obscure marketing channel, and that AdWords are an increasingly prolific form of advertising. Id. at 46-49. The Court ultimately concluded that plaintiff failed to introduce sufficient evidence to demonstrate a likelihood of confusion; the Court then granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the trademark infringement claim.