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First ruling in Spain dealing with keyword advertising

May 6, 2012

A commercial court in Madrid has recently addressed for the first time in Spain a claim against the use of someone else’s trademark as a keyword within the Google Adwords program. While the ruling was actually handed down last December, it has not been until very recently that it has become publicly known. The case is Maherlo Iberica S.L. v. Calzados Fernando García S.L. (Commercial Court #9 of Madrid, December 22, 2011). The plaintiff is a company that commercializes elevator shoes for men—shoes with raised insoles that make people look taller—and holds several trademarks bearing the word MASALTOS and MASALTOS.COM. The defendant is a competitor company who sells as well elevator shoes for men, who was using the word MASALTOS in several allegedly infringing ways—in its web site, both visible and hidden as metatags, and also as a keyword in Google’s Adwords.

A grammatical remark must be made before going into more detail. The word MASALTOS is actually a mix of two words. The Spanish word “más” (bearing this orthographic accent) means “more”. The adjective “altos” means “tall”, specifically for substantives which are masculine and plural, such as “hombres” (men). Using the words “más altos” as a trademark for shoes that make men look taller has the obvious problem that these words actually serve to design the intended purpose of the goods and hence such a sign could not constitute a trademark according to article 3(1)(c) of Directive 2008/95/EC – and article 5(1)(c) of the Spanish Trademark Act.

As a matter of fact, the defendant filed a counterclaim asking the court to declare that plaintiff’s trademarks were void in the first place because of their descriptive character. The court began by analyzing this claim; as if the trademarks were in fact void the action brought by the plaintiff would lack merit. The court found, however, that the plaintiff’s trademarks had some distinctive character and thus were not void, particularly due to the fact that those two words are written together and without the orthographic accent (MASALTOS), and that the trademarks are not just denominative but also graphic, as the words are presented with a particular shape. The court thus concluded that while the trademark owner cannot prevent a third party from using the two separate words (más altos), the use of the expression MASALTOS as such could indeed constitute a trademark infringement.

The defendant actually used this expression in several ways. It runs a website under the domain name “hiplus.com”. At the time the lawsuit was filed, the homepage featured the slogan “Hiplus – Hombres MAS  ALTOS. Zapatos con alzas para ser MAS ALTOS” (Hiplus – Taller men. Shoes with raised insoles to be taller). In an interior webpage, though, the two words appeared written together: ““Hiplus – Hombres MASALTOS. Zapatos con alzas para ser MASALTOS”. This webpage was located at “hiplus.com/masaltos” – hence again one could see the sign written as a single word.

What makes the case more interesting is that the defendant had as well selected those words—both “más altos” and “masaltos” as keywords to trigger sponsored links within Google’s Adwords program. It also he word “masaltos” as a metatag in the webpage source code in the hope of appearing in the organic search results as well.

The ruling relies on the interpretation offered by the EUCJ in Google France (joined Cases C-236/08 to C-238/08) and its progeny (namely L’Oréal and Interflora). Accordingly, it holds that an advertiser who purchases a referencing service and chooses as a keyword a sign identical to a third party’s trademark is actually using the mark in the course of trade (see Google France, 51). When this use is intended to make internet users aware of the goods offered by the advertiser, it constitutes a use in relation to those goods or services (see Google France, 71). The court quotes again from Google France stating that a trademark owner is entitled to prohibit advertising based on such a keyword “where that ad does not enable an average internet user, or enables that user only with difficulty, to ascertain whether the goods or services referred to therein originate from the proprietor of the trade mark or an undertaking economically connected to it or, on the contrary, originate from a third party” (see Google France, 99). It quotes as well from the Interflora judgment regarding the adverse effect on the ‘investment’ function of the mark.

Interestingly, the ruling maintains that while the EUCJ holdings relate to cases of identical signs, they can “without any doubt” be applied to the use of similar signs for identical or similar products that cause confusion, provided that one or more of the trademark functions is affected. Moreover, it holds that this doctrine can be applied as well to the use of identical or similar signs as metatags.

The court concludes that, in this case, the use of the expression “MASALTOS” as a keyword by the defendant cannot be justified on account of the need to describe his products. Rather, it is a use that adversely affects the origin indication function of the plaintiff’s trademark, particularly taking into account the fact that the defendant’s website uses as well the same sign. The court is convinced that the only purpose of this conduct is to mislead users.

Accordingly, the ruling grants the injunction asked for by the plaintiff. In addition, the plaintiff is awarded 6,059.25 Euros in statutory damages pursuant article 43(5) of the Spanish Trademark Act.

More info (in Spanish) here

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. austrotrabant permalink
    June 27, 2012 8:49 pm

    Dear Miquel, thank you for your excellent summary! Has this decision already been published?
    I couldn’t find the link to this decision in your article as I’d like to add it to my list of European keyword advertising cases on my website.

    Best regards, Maximilian

  2. Miquel Peguera permalink*
    July 11, 2012 1:02 pm

    Dear Maximilian,
    The decision has not yet been published, that I know of. I’ll keep you posted.
    Kind regards,
    Miquel

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