We've been covering the absolutely ridiculous lawsuit of educational software firm Jenzabar against documentary filmmakers Long Bow for a few years
now. The short version is that Long Bow made a documentary about some of the activists from the Tiananmen Square uprising, that was somewhat critical of them -- including a protest organizer named Ling Chai. Chai later moved to the US and founded an educational software company called Jenzabar. She has regularly played up her history as a Tiananmen Square organizer in getting PR for the company. The filmmakers called into question some of her actions back during the protests, and also set up a webpage, associated with the movie, critical of Chai. Chai sued for defamation -- which was quickly thrown out. However, she also had Jenzabar sue for trademark infringement
, because the page about her on Long Bow's site mentioned Jenzabar in the title and in the meta tags.
The case has gone on for over 3 years now, with an initial ruling
against Jenzabar, saying that there was no trademark issue because there was no likelihood of confusion. Jenzabar, however, continued to pour money into the case, appealing
the ruling, and claiming that they should still win based on the obsolete theory of initial interest confusion
, which suggests there can be trademark infringement even if someone is only misled initially, and quickly realizes the situation. In this case, Jenzabar argued -- somewhat ridiculously -- that initial interest confusion might apply to someone doing a Google search on Jenzabar, and then go to the Long Bow page, believing that it was associated with the company, only to discover, upon loading, that it was not. If such a theory were valid, it would be a huge tool for trademark bullies to take down all sorts of critical commentary about their companies or products.
Thankfully, the appeals court has now affirmed the initial ruling
, saying that there is no trademark infringement issue here at all. Unfortunately, it chose to do so somewhat narrowly, lending credence to some of the troubling theories raised by Jenzabar. That is, rather than just recognizing that this case is a clear attempt to abuse trademark law to stifle critical speech, the court decided to go through a full "five factors" test to determine if something is trademark infringement via initial interest confusion.
There are serious problems with the court going this route. The folks over at the Digital Media Law Project (who filed an amicus brief in the case) have highlighted some of the concerns
But by choosing to approach the trademark infringement question in the way that it did, the court perpetuated certain problems that we flagged in our brief. Applying the standard infringement factors to critical speech forces to the court to come to some awkward conclusions about how the factors should apply, and leaves open some potentially odd results in future cases. This analytic tension in applying a likelihood of confusion analysis to critical speech permeates the majority’s analysis. Some highlights follow below:
Similarity of the parties' goods: This is a classic factor in trademark infringement analysis, and when applied to two market rivals using similar marks to sell their goods it makes a great deal of sense: the more similar the goods are, the more likely a consumer may be confused looking at those goods. But here the application makes no sense whatsoever.
The court here notes (quite correctly) that Jenzabar sells educational software systems and Long Bow makes documentary films. Those two fields are unrelated, and thus the court held that this factor favors Long Bow. That is convenient for Long Bow, but in this context it is irrelevant. Consumers looking at critical speech are not any more likely to be confused as to the origin of the speech because it comes from a market competitor. To hold this as relevant is to say that Reed Elsevier or the New York Times would be more successful in attacking critical speech on trademark grounds, because those publishing criticism usually do so at media and publishing companies.
Paul Levy, from Public Citizen, who represented Long Bow in the case, raises a few other concerns
about the ruling, including that this decision to go through the detailed factors test will allow trademark bullies and others pursuing SLAPP-type litigation to increase the time and expense for those they are suing -- a clear concern for Long Bow in this case:
Long Bow Group burned though more than $250,000 in legal fees on preliminary motions and discovery, and veered close to bankruptcy before it found public interest lawyers who were willing to assume responsibility for the litigation; the Appeals Court upheld summary judgment after a review of a joint appendix more than 2700 pages long. Unlike other recent decisions that dismissed claims of “initial interest confusion” out of hand, such as because the Internet critic was not benefitting financially, or because “momentary confusion [is] dispelled the moment the Internet user reaches [underlying] site,” the Appeals Court conducted a lengthy analysis of the summary judgment record to reach that conclusion. To be sure, many of the undisputed facts on which the court relied are likely to be found in most cases where a critic’s page about a trademark holder has appeared prominently in the search results. In the end, the only evidence Jenzabar had was the search result itself, and the Appeals Court properly ruled that this is simply not enough to avoid summary judgment. Yet if avoidance of a trial depends on a painstaking analysis of a detailed summary judgment record—and if future abusive trademark litigants can avoid early summary judgment by arguing that they hope to compile a better record through extensive (and expensive) discovery—there will be many Internet critics who will find the cost of a legal defense too great a barrier to continued exercise of their free speech rights.
This is a huge concern. Levy also notes that, if Jenzabar appeals (and all indications are that it will do so), he will seek to get the higher court to affirm on the grounds that "the theory of initial interest confusion is itself a bankrupt doctrine."
Levy raises one other problem with the ruling. We had talked about how Jenzabar had found an "expert witness" who argued
that Google relied on keyword metatags to determine search rankings, in an effort to prove that Long Bow's use of "jenzabar" in its metatags impacted Google results. There was, however, a big problem with this claim: Google has stated publicly for years that it does not use keyword metatags. When this was pointed out, Jenzabar insisted that public statements from Google employees to this point were hearsay
. Unfortunately, the court still seemed willing to entertain the testimony:
Another aspect of the decision that may take litigation in this area a step backward is the apparent acceptance of a confusing expert’s affidavit as being sufficient to create an issue about whether inclusion of a trademark in a keyword meta tag can raise the search ranking of a page containing that meta tag. The Appeals Court acknowledged official statements by Google, cited by the Ninth Circuit and the McCarthy treatise, to the effect that search engines no longer take account of the keyword meta tag, but if a wealthy litigant can avoid summary judgment by hiring an expert witness who is willing to say whatever he needs to say to get paid (and we thought that the expert very carefully tiptoed around the issue of the impact of keyword meta tags, rather than addressing them directly), the social utility of the truth as a bar to litigation is substantially reduced.
In the end, while it's clearly a good thing that the summary judgment against Jenzabar was upheld, there are some problems with the ruling. Given the expectation that the case will be appealed, hopefully the Supreme Judicial Court will correct some of these flaws.