Nicholas J has granted Thomas International an interlocutory injunction ordering Humantech to transfer the domain names, thomasinternational.com.au and thomas.co.za, to Thomas International. Thomas International had to give the usual undertakings and, as a foreign corporation, provide security for costs.
Thomas International is an English company which provides psychological testing and psychometric assessments, and competency and skills-based assessments, particularly using computerised services accessed over the internet through thomasinternational.net. It also makes its materials and services available through distributors. It appointed Humantech, a company associated with a Mr Schutte, as its master distributor/licensee for South Africa and Australia with power to exercise its rights through distributors. Humantech was permitted to use the “Thomas” trade marks, to incorporate a company in Australia under the name Thomas International (Australia) and to register the domain names. There were also obligations when the arrangements ceased or were terminated to cease use of the trade marks and change the corporate name of Thomas International (Australia) to a name which did not include Thomas.
In due course, the Schutte interests also incorporated another entity, ACT, which offered similar services to Thomas International’s assessment and training services. Thomas International alleges that, after some successful years’ trading, revenues from Thomas International (Australia) starting dropping off and the Schutte interests were diverting customers to ACT which, without permission, was using materials based on Thomas International’s materials.
Thomas International sued Humantech, Thomas International (Australia), ACT and Mr Schutte. There was a meeting between the parties and their lawyers shortly after. Thomas International said it would not discuss a new licensing arrangement until an undertaking dealing with the existing issues was provided. As a result, Humantech and the Schutte interests provided an undertaking to cease use of Thomas International’s trade marks, intellectual property and to transfer the domain names over. Thomas International also agreed to negotiate about a new licensing arrangement in good faith.
The next day Thomas International made its licence proposal to the Schutte interests. They considered it was financially unworkable and left the meeting. Later that day, they then put Humantech (and subsequently the other corporate entities) into administration and disabled the website. Shortly thereafter, Thomas International applied for interlocutory injunctions.
As noted, Nicholas J granted the interlocutory injunctions including an order that the domain names be transferred to Thomas International. The terms of the Undertaking meant it had a prima facie case to force the Schutte interests to stop using the Thomas name and trade mark and for the transfer of the domain names.
The Schutte interests’ main attempt to rebut that was their argument that the Undertaking was invalid or unenforceable. That was said to result because, it was alleged, that Thomas International extracted the Undertaking in return for its promise to negotiate a new licence arrangement in good faith. The Schutte interests contended that the terms of the licence they were offered were so unreasonable as to show that Thomas International did not negotiate, and had no intention of negotiating, in good faith. This issue was not developed in detail at this stage, but Nicholas J pointed out that, on the current state of the law in Australia, an obligation to negotiate in good faith did not require a party to subordinate its own interests to that of the other party.
On the balance of convenience, Nicholas J accepted Thomas International’s argument that:
the present state of affairs may cause TIL significant reputational damage as a result of customers who have purchased units entitling them to make use of facilities provided by TIL at the Thomas Hub being prevented from gaining access to it through the TIA website. I accept this submission. I also consider that any such damage may be irreparable and that damages will most likely not provide an adequate remedy. The financial statements of TIA for the financial year ending 30 June 2014 show that the company has net assets of just under $145,000.
On the other hand, the Schutte interests’ main argument was the disruption to their business, and that of their customers, if they could not continue to use the domain names, the main access point for provision of services both to Thomas International (Australia)’s customers and those ACT. As Nicholas J pointed out, however, the Schutte parties had already disabled access to the websites so they had already caused that problem themselves.
It would appear that Thomas International first learned something about ACT’s activities, the subject of the complaint, in May 2014 (i.e., a year earlier). However, Thomas International was able to lead evidence showing all the work it did, and the difficulties it encounted, in trying to ascertain what ACT was doing until proceedings were issued. In this context, the termination by Humantech of the main employee with responsibilities for running the Thomas part of its business may will have been highly significant.
Permission to proceed against the companies although administrators were appointed was granted as the interests of the administrators were adequately protected by the undertaking as to damages and provision for securities.
Bromberg J has now made orders arising from his Honour’s finding that the use of real1.com.au infringed REA Group’s registered trade mark. Amongst other things, these included orders that the disputed domain names be transferred to REA Group. An expensive exercise in trying to generate value from “real 1”.
On the other hand, Middleton J has rejected Vendor Advocacy Australia’s attempts to get domain names like:
from a former employee (or contractor), Mr Seitanidis notwithstanding his Honour’s findings about much Mr Seitanidis’ conduct.
Vendor advocates are apparently much in the market these days. A Mr Ian Reid had been operating a vendor advocacy business for a number of years. Some of his advertising did include:
but the corporate stationery and much of the other advertising took this form:
and the radio advertising also emphasised the personality of Mr Reid.
After a detailed discussion of the cases on descriptive terms and secondary meaning, Middleton J held:
…. The phrase “vendor advocacy” is descriptive and was generally used by various traders in the same line of business. I am not satisfied that the words or brand relied upon in this proceeding by VAA have any secondary distinctive meaning. VAA has primarily promoted itself by reference to the persona of Ian Reid. I do not consider that any consumer which assume that a reference to vendor advocacy, or Australian Vendor Advocacy, would be associated with VAA or Ian Reid. In fact, because Ian Reid has been so much at the front of the promotion of VAA, without his presence the consumer may well assume it is not associated with him or VAA. Any imperfect recollection of consumers would arise from VAA’s adoption of a name consisting of descriptive words. The lack of recall will be as a result of the promotional activity adopted by VAA, by reference to the descriptive words ‘vendor advocacy’.
And so Vendor Advocacy Australia did not get orders for the transfer of the domain names.
One interesting consequence of this is that there may be an inquiry on the undertaking as to damages given for an interlocutory injunction preventing the use of some of the domain names.
Middleton J was willing to take at  a fairly robust view about consumers’ familiarity with the use of similar domain names by different companies. His Honour also thought any momentary or transitory confusion which might arise from the use of the domain names would not rise to the level of misleading or deceptive conduct. As his Honour reminded:
In circumstances where a trader adopts a descriptive trade name the use by another trader of a trade name that also uses those descriptive elements will not generally (in itself) constitute misleading or deceptive conduct.
His Honour also joined the growing band of judges who don’t think consumers pay much attention to whether domain names end in .com or .com.au or the like.
As of last month, 4 new gTLDs had already been approved but more than 1,000 have made it passed the “initial evaluation stage”. Private auctions for new gTLDs where there is more than one applicant are starting.
The new gTLDs aren’t here yet but scary as it is, this is going to happen.
So, if you are a brand owner – or advise brand owners – and you haven’t been thinking about how you are going to deal with this, Jonathan’s post really serves as a timely warning to get your thinking cap on:
are you going to try and register any (and if so which) of your trade marks in any of these new gTLDs?
what steps are you going to take, if any, to make sure someone else is not registering one (or more) of your trade marks in one of these new gTLDs?
If you have tried to buy, sell or rent property in Australia in the last 10 years (at the least!), like some nearly 7 million other Australians you have no doubt come across realestate.com.au, the web-portal run by REA Group. Real One also competes in that space.
Bromberg J held that the uses both in the first line and the second line of the advertisment infringed. In contrast to his Honour’s rejection of the claim for misleading or deceptive conduct, Bromberg J explained at :
In my view, the display of the term “realestate1.com.au” in the heading of a sponsored link would have been regarded by many consumers to be the trading and domain name of the business whose link it was. One of the central distinguishing features of REA’s realestate.com.au trade marks is the idea that the term “realestate.com.au” is both a brand name and a domain name at the same time. When Real Estate 1 used “realestate1.com.au” as a trading name, it took up that precise idea. In that context consumers are likely to pay substantive attention to “.com.au” because it serves the function of identifying the brand whose domain name is also being used as a brand. The whole of the domain name is likely to be read or at least scanned. In a circumstance such as that, there was in my view, a real danger of confusion on the part of a consumer familiar with REA’s realestate.com.au trade marks. That principally arises because in a scanning process of the kind which can occur on a search results page, the “1”, which is not very distinct in the context of a domain name in ordinary type face, is likely to be missed by some consumers.
First, his Honour distinguished Perram J’s proposition in the Solahart case that usually one can ignore the inclusion in a sign of elements like “www” and “.com.au” as merely “accoutrements” of the domain name system and so not matters that the public would pay attention to. Unlike the situation before Bromberg J, however, that observation was not made in a context where the .com.au element formed part of the registered trade mark.
Second, I can certainly see that the bold “headline” (the first line) in Real One’s advertisment is plainly being used as a trade mark. But the use in the second line???
Yes, I know that cases have held that domain names / URLs are the Internet’s equivalent of a sign or billboard. That can certainly be true and, in the first line of the advertisement, the URL is plainly being used in that way, but surely with respect in the second line the URL is no more than an address.
Third, one might express some alarm that anyone can stop someone else using the term “real estate” (in connection with real estate services). There are, after all only 387 other registered trade marks in class 36 alone which include the words “real estate”. On the Internet, there is also at the least realestateview.com.au. Bromberg J’s first answer in  above is that it was not just the use of “real estate” that gave rise to liability: it was the use of that term and “.com.au” in combination and the comparative insignificance of the “1” in Real One’s URL.
Bromberg J did, however, recognise the problem and said at :
As my conclusions demonstrate, registration of REA’s realestate.com.au marks has effectively given REA a monopoly over two highly descriptive terms when used in combination. Those terms are likely to be the most common terms on a search results page where a search has been conducted for a residential real estate portal. The protection conferred by REA’s trade marks over the use of “realestate” and “.com.au” in combination, provides REA with a monopoly over the term “realestate” in circumstances where its rivals seeking also to use “realestate” or a close variant thereof as a second-level domain, do not forego the advantages of using “.com.au” in their domain names. The natural advantage of a domain name which incorporates “realestate” to the commercial success of property portals will be apparent from observations I have already made. There is also a natural advantage in the use of the suffix “.com.au”. It is troubling that terms that are highly descriptive of a particular area of commerce and which provide significant commercial advantage should not be readily available for use by all who seek to participate in that commerce. However, in the absence of a successful challenge to the registration of REA’s realestate.com.au trade marks, whilst that may be troubling, REA is nevertheless entitled to the protection of the monopoly which has been conferred upon it.
The question has to be asked, however, on what basis could REA group’s logo be revoked or refused registration? Given the device elements (and the large number of other, competing devices), it would surely be held to be capable of distinguishing. The “good” old days (i.e., before the 1995 Act) were at least better in this respect: the Registrar could impose disclaimers to ensure these sorts of monopolies should not arise.
Two short points in conclusion:
His Honour did also find that Real One’s “real commercial” logo infringed REA group’s registration for its “real commercial” logo.
It would seem that Real One is still able to operate from its “.net.au” URL.
Bromberg J found at  that the principal of Real One adopted the name to pressure REA group into buying him out at some point, but also went on reluctantly to find no accessorial liability (akin to authorising). ?
For simplicity, I will treat that term as covering the actions for misleading or deceptive conduct (now under s 18 of the ACL formerly known as s 52 of the Trade Practice Act 1974) which, of course, was really the focus of that part of the case. ?
The number doesn’t seem to be identified, but TM Nos 811931 and 1075935 are for the mark in black and white and TM No. 1478263 is for the colour version reproduced in his Honour’s reasons. ?
Following last week’s post where Arnold J found Marks & Spencer liable for buying ads on the keyword INTERFLORA because of the initial interest confusion, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in the USA has heavily qualified when (perhaps that should be “if” or “if ever”) initial interest confusion can constitute trade mark infringement in the USA.
It involved Lens.com buying ads on the keyword, 1800contacts, for contact lenses.
The 10th Circuit upheld the trial judge’s exclusion of a consumer survey proferred by 1-800 Contacts to establish confusion. There were a number of reasons for its rejection including its flawed methodology. The 10th Circuit went on to conclude that the approximately 7% confusion shown by the survey would be insufficient to rise to trade mark infringement under US law. Accepting that each case depended on its own facts, the 10th Circuit endorsed the general proposition that:
The great weight of authority appears to be that “[w]hen the percentage results of a confusion survey dip below 10%, they can become evidence which will indicate that confusion is not likely.” 6 McCarthy § 32:189 at 32-440 (emphasis added by 10th Circuit).
One wonders whether an Australian court, which must ascertain whether a [substantial][OR a significant] number of the relevant audience might be caused to wonder, would be so robust as to conclude that 5% or 7% of the market was not a substantial (or significant) number?
Professors Goldman and Tushnet identify a range of reasons to regret the 10th Circuit’s decision not to drive a stake through the heart of initial interest confusion. Prof. Goldman does speculate, in particular, whether measuring “click-throughs” as a proxy for confusion could ever cross the 10% threshold.
Marks & Spencer has been found to have infringed Interflora’s trade mark in the UK by ‘buying’ ads triggered by Google searches for the keyword INTERFLORA.
An example of the ads Arnold J found infringing:
In Google France, the CJEU established that an advertiser would infringe a registered trade mark when its ads were triggered by a trade mark as a keyword where: 
“82 The essential function of a trade mark is to guarantee the identity of the origin of the marked goods or service to the consumer or end user by enabling him to distinguish the goods or service from others which have another origin (see, to that effect, Case C–39/97 Canon  ECR I–5507, paragraph 28, and Case C–120/04 Medion  ECR I–8551, paragraph 23).
83 The question whether that function of the trade mark is adversely affected when internet users are shown, on the basis of a keyword identical with a mark, a third party’s ad, such as that of a competitor of the proprietor of that mark, depends in particular on the manner in which that ad is presented.
84 The function of indicating the origin of the mark is adversely affected if the ad does not enable normally informed and reasonably attentive internet users, or enables them only with difficulty, to ascertain whether the goods or services referred to by the ad 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, to that effect, Céline, paragraph 27 and the case-law cited).
85 In such a situation, which is, moreover, characterised by the fact that the ad in question appears immediately after entry of the trade mark as a search term by the internet user concerned and is displayed at a point when the trade mark is, in its capacity as a search term, also displayed on the screen, the internet user may err as to the origin of the goods or services in question. In those circumstances, the use by the third party of the sign identical with the mark as a keyword triggering the display of that ad is liable to create the impression that there is a material link in the course of trade between the goods or services in question and the proprietor of the trade mark (see, by way of analogy, Arsenal Football Club, paragraph 56, and Case C–245/02 Anheuser-Busch  ECR I–10989, paragraph 60).
Arnold J found on the evidence that a significant section of the public were confused and so Marks & Spencer infringed.
It is not possible to do justice in a blog post to the full range of reasons contributing to his Lordship’s conclusion. Some that stand out follow.
Arnold J accepted (at ) that the majority of UK internet users appreciated the difference between paid ads and natural or organic search results, but there was still a significant proportion of internet users in the UK who did not. His Lordship also accepted that “nowadays” the majority of consumers appreciate .
nowadays the majority of consumers appreciate [they are being presented with ads by competitors to the brand they had searched for]. But I consider that a significant proportion do not. (emphasis supplied)
Secondly, the nature of the INTERFLORA brand appears to have been crucial. As you will no doubt be familiar, INTERFLORA is a network. It operates through a network of agents who are usually (always?) branded under their own names and trade marks. Those customers who were not buying online from “interflora.co.uk” or “interflora.com”, for example, would typically go into a retail outlet operating under its own name (and which may display the INTERFLORA name and logo).
The significance of this (at  and ) was that there was great potential for those customers who realised they were dealing with Marks & Spencer when they clicked on the ad mistakenly to think it was part of the INTERFLORA network.
That potential was in fact borne out by the evidence. In particular, there was evidence from “Hitwise data” that people who (1) searched on the keyword INTERFLORA and (2) as a result clicked on a Marks & Spencer ad generated in response to the search (3) were between 44 and 106 times more likely than the average visitor to the M & S flowers site to leave the M & S site without purchasing and instead go on to an INTERFLORA site.
At  – , his Lordship accepted the propositions that:
a significant number of consumers in Segment A decided after they had clicked through to the M & S website that it was not where they wanted to be and went to the Interflora website instead. The second is that the reason for this change of mind was that those consumers had clicked through from the M & S advertisement because they assumed from the appearance of the advertisement in response to their search that M & S was part of the Interflora network, but they realised that that was not the case when they clicked through to the M & S website and saw no reference to Interflora.
and such “initial interest” confusion was itself enough for trade mark infringement.
Thus, while Google doesn’t infringe by ‘selling’ keywords, the advertiser may and, in this case on Arnold J’s findings, did.
What, if anything, does it mean for us?
First off, the judgment is full of fascinating details about the “AdWords” and “search” market and the strategies that businesses deploy. For example, it appears that Google held around 90% of the global search (and paid advertising relating to search) market, with Bing and Yahoo! trailing out of site. There are also discussions of market research reports and Ofcom studies into what consumers understand when using the internet.
It is not clear whether Arnold J’s reasoning will provide us with much assistance here. First, while EU law does not appear to require use as a trade mark to infringe, the origin function referenced by the CJEU in Google France appears similar to our concept of use as a trade mark – as a badge of origin or to identify the trade source.
Secondly, it seems doubtful that the considerations identified in  of Google France would be relevant at all under our law. The idea of examining whether the “normally informed and reasonably attentive internet users” could ascertain the trade source from the ad, or do so “only with difficulty”, indicates that the content of the advertisment may make it clear that the trade mark owner is not the source of the advertised product. However, a registered trade mark is infringed in Australia even if the trade source is made clear, for example by a disclaimer or other identifying factor. The type of analysis being engaged in under EU law is rather more like what would take place in a passing off action or action for misleading or deceptive conduct.
Thirdly, our law does recognise the idea of “initial interest confusion”, but the number of people who apparently went to M & S’ website and “clicked away” does rather highlight the difficulties with the concept as applied to web searches: clicking the back button, or even doing another web search in the browser, is not so costly as walking out of the shop, hopping back in your car and going looking for the intended destination.
Arguably, the most significant point could be the starting point identified at  – the Court of Justice’s recognition that:
keyword advertising is not inherently or inevitably objectionable from a trade mark perspective. On the contrary, the case law of the CJEU in this field recognises that, as a general rule, keyword advertising promotes competition ….
On this view, it was only the very special nature of INTERFLORA as a ‘network’ that convicted Marks & Spencer.
For example Southern Cross v Toowoomba at  but, at least in the context of misleading or deceptive conduct / passing off (yes, I know this is a post about registered trade marks) some brake may be imposed on that in at least some cases. ?
The High Court unanimously allowed the appeal. Google did not create the sponsored links that it published or displayed. Ordinary and reasonable users of the Google search engine would have understood that the representations conveyed by the sponsored links were those of the advertisers, and would not have concluded that Google adopted or endorsed the representations. Accordingly, Google did not engage in conduct that was misleading or deceptive.
French CJ, Crennan and Kiefel JJ delivered the principal judgment, Hayne J and Heydon J each delivered separate concurring opinions.
Google Inc v Australian Competition and Consumer Commission  HCA 1