Chanel, Inc., which like many other luxury-goods companies has been constantly plagued by counterfeiters, has taken its legal fight against unauthorized knock-offs to a whole new level. On November 14, 2011, acting at Chanel’s request, U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson of the District of Nevada signed an order that not only prohibits hundreds of alleged trademark infringers from manufacturing or selling fake Chanel handbags, wallets, shoes, and the like – but also orders the defendants’ domain names seized and transferred to the Web hosting company GoDaddy, which would direct them to a page describing the seizure. The temporary restraining order also orders that the counterfeiters’ domain names be “de-indexed” by Google, Bing, Yahoo, and all social media websites, specifically mentioning Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
Chanel, Inc. had filed suit against several websites for selling counterfeit versions of its merchandise. Chanel hired an investigative firm to purchase several items from three of the websites named as defendants in the lawsuit. The investigators then sent those items to a Chanel consultant who determined that the merchandise was not genuine Chanel. The consultant also examined other merchandise offered for sale on these websites and determined that none of the items offered were authentic Chanel products. The defendant websites were not authorized dealers of Chanel products and therefore were in direct violation of Chanel’s trademark rights.
Chanel’s trademark lawyers obtained this injunctive relief by, among other things, pointing out that counterfeiters use search engine optimization (SEO) just as legitimate companies do, and that it was necessary for the court to shut down their ability to use the Web to compete unfairly with Chanel. “Chanel does contend that it has the right to fairly compete for such search engine results space unfettered by unfair competition stemming from an illegal use of Chanel’s trademarks,” Chanel’s lawyers wrote in the underlying motion.
But did the court even have the authority to cast such a wide net with its ruling? Facebook and Twitter, for example, have been ordered to de-index the infringing sites, but they were not even parties to the lawsuit. As the Ars Technica tech blog argues: “Missing from the ruling is any discussion of the Internet’s global nature; the judge shows no awareness that the domains in question might not even be registered in this country, for instance, and his ban on search engine and social media indexing apparently extends to the entire world.”
The court came down hard on the copycats and resorted to the extreme measure of attempting to have their existence scrubbed from the World Wide Web. The question now becomes whether it is the responsibility of the search engines and the social media sites to ensure that the offending websites do not show up as search results.