In the 21st century, when advertising is frequently conducted via the Internet, the use of keyword advertising has become an increasingly contentious point of trademark law.
In short, keyword advertising is a form of online advertising in which a business selects words or phrases (the “keywords”) that trigger its advertisements to appear when the user of a search engine performs a search using those keywords. The advertisements typically appear alongside the organic search results produced by the search engine.
Where multiple companies use the same keywords to trigger advertisements, the search engine will use an algorithm to select which company’s advertisements actually appear and in what order, based at least in part on the amount each business is willing to pay for the advertisement. The difficulty from a trademark perspective is that businesses frequently choose competitors’ trademarks as keywords.
There has been little development in Canadian jurisprudence in the area since the first Canadian decision on keyword advertising in 2010. Last week, the Supreme Court of British Columbia, writing through Justice Affleck, tackled the issue head-on in Vancouver Community v. Vancouver Career (Burnaby) Inc., 2015 BCSC 1470.
In this case, the Vancouver Community College (“Community”) brought a passing off action against the Vancouver Career College (“Career”) in which it alleged, among other claims, that Career, principally through keyword advertising, misrepresented its educational services as those of Community. As part of its claims, Community objected to the use of the acronym VCC by Career as part of the latter’s keyword advertising campaign, notwithstanding Community’s unregistered, common law trademark rights in VCC. The evidence showed that Community used VCC as a trademark from 1965 until 1990, when it largely abandoned the use of VCC, until 2013, when significant use resumed.
Ultimately, Justice Affleck concluded that there was no passing off by Career, since Community failed to meet the first part of the test for passing off, in that it did not have sufficient goodwill and acquired distinctiveness in its unregistered VCC trademark to impart a secondary meaning to consumers. However, the trial judge went on to discuss the second part of the test, namely, whether Career had caused confusion by misrepresenting its services as those of Community. In doing so, Justice Affleck made the following comments of interest:
-on bidding by advertisers, and the operation and process of searching using search engines – “a bid on a keyword may send a searcher to the bidder’s landing page, but the process of the search is controlled by the searcher and the search engine, not by the advertiser”.
-on when a first impression is made on the consumer – consistent with the decision in Insurance Corporation of British Columbia v. Stainton Ventures Ltd., 2014 BCCA 296 (the “ICBC Decision”), “the “first impression” cannot arise on a [search] at an earlier time than when the searcher reaches a website […] the “relevant consumer” will “understand that it is necessary to view a website to determine whose site it is” [citing the ICBC Decision]. In my opinion that is the point during a search when the relevant first impression is made”.
-on bidding on another company’s trademark as a keyword – “to award damages to the plaintiff or to enjoin the defendant from certain conduct because the defendant bids on the plaintiff’s name for the purposes of keyword advertising would be to disadvantage the defendant in a way that other online advertisers are not”.
In the result, Justice Affleck concluded that Career did not cause confusion by taking advantage of the keyword advertising service offered by Google.
Other than the issue of keyword advertising, which we expect is the point that will garner the most interest and commentary from practitioners, the decision is interesting for:
-Justice Affleck’s reliance on the ICBC Decision, as referenced above, which sparked its own interest for its assessment of when a “first impression” is made upon Internet users;
-Justice Affleck’s disposition of the official mark issue raised by Community in essentially 3 brief paragraphs without going into detail, such as whether Career actually used VCC as a trademark prior to publication of Community’s official mark for VCC;
-Justice Affleck’s finding that Community’s VCC mark enjoys “goodwill in the educational services it provides, but [has] not achieved a “secondary meaning” in the marketplace”, which contrasts with the comments of the Trademarks Opposition Board (the “Board”) with respect to Community’s VCC mark in an earlier decision in which the Board rejected Career’s application to register the trademark VCCollege.ca; and
-Justice Affleck’s observation that Community’s action for passing off was an attempt to handicap Career, and was “motivated by a concern that its own inability to invest the necessary funds and expertise to create a sophisticated online advertising program leaves it at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace in comparison with [Career]”.
Community has until September 19, 2015 to appeal Justice Affleck’s decision to the British Columbia Court of Appeal.