A French court of appeals on Wednesday sided with leather goods manufacturer Louis Vuitton and ruled that Google had violated trademark, unfair competition and advertising laws by showing ads for Vuitton rivals when people searched for Vuitton.
The closely-watched case?which involves Google having to pay a fine of about $250,000?has huge implications for wide range of search and related Web activities.
The Web is intended to be convenient for the searcher and the assumption is that someone searching for one company's products might also be interested in rivals. In other words, the Web assumes that the person is likely searching for handbags and is using Vuitton as a way to start such a search, in the way that someone might search for Toyota or Ford if they are interested in cars.
Vuitton's efforts are aimed at making the search engine more of an advertising/marketing service for the merchant than a research service for the customer. The Web's roots suggests it's intended to be more of a populist tool.
The Vuitton case raises other issues, such as whether a global company such as Google can be forced to abide by the laws of many different countries.
The International Herald-Tribune recently quoted Bertrand Legret, a spokesman for Google's French subsidiary, as saying, "You cannot make a rule to forbid all usage of a name. There is some difference with domestic rules and brand standards. But it's the responsibility of the advertiser to control or do a different campaign in different countries."
Legret makes an excellent point, but the French courts saw it differently. I'll try and avoid suggesting that Vuitton held the home court advantage.
Vuitton issued a statement Wednesday that it was "very pleased with the ruling" and that Vuitton "is more determined than ever to pursue its relentless battle against counterfeiting, in particular on the Internet, in order to safeguard its intellectual property and the interests of its customers."
That last part of the statement is, in my view, key. Is this decision truly in the best interests of Vuitton's customers? It's clearly in the best interest of Vuitton's sales reps.
Last year, when the Paris District Court made the initial ruling that was upheld Wednesday, issued a statement that said it was also "very pleased with the ruling." I guess Vuitton's executives are very easily "very pleased." But the initial statement addressed the core issue and made a stronger case.
"This milestone ruling grants protection for the first time to both consumers and brand owners by finding that Google?s Adwords and Premium Sponsorship services as misleading advertising services," the 2005 statement said. "It was absolutely unthinkable that a company like Google be authorized, in the scope of its advertising business, to sell the Louis Vuitton trademark to third parties, specifically to web sites selling counterfeits."
In California, it's not only thinkable, it's fairly obvious. But is it legal? Is Google indeed trafficking on the brand name that companies like Vuitton paid for to sell ads. Candidly, yes, they are. But is that a bad thing ultimately for the common good?
The Web is part of the Internet's network of networks and it's strength and magic is in the unexpected pieces of information that come from following one web of knowledge to a connecting nearby Web of knowledge. In the commerce world, that means that a search for a well-known will also list related products, which will include rivals.
Ultimately, manufacturers, search engines and all other E-Commerce players will profit from a stronger competitive business environment. This French ruling deserves a Bronx Cheer.