Some aspects of intellectual property law are inherently complex. But other areas could be — and should be — much simpler. For example, you would think the law would have a crystal clear answer to this question: When a retailer is selling something produced by a famous manufacturer and wants to advertise the fact, is the retailer allowed to use the manufacturer’s name in its advertisements?
Reasonable readers may well ask themselves why this isn’t settled law, something the trademark statute or an early decision interpreting the statute must have established long ago. But it was this very question that the Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit considered this month (January 2013) in Swarovski Aktiengesellschaft v. Building #19, Inc. Here are the bare facts:
The plaintiff, Swarovski, makes crystal products. The defendant, Building #19, bought some Swarovski products in order to sell them at its stores. To that end, Building #19 designed some advertisements, which informed the public that (a) it was offering Swarovski products for sale; and (b) Building #19 had no connection to Swarovski and was not an authorized Swarovski dealer. The advertisements prominently featured the mark Swarovski (replete with the circled-R registered trademark symbol). The disclaimer was much less prominent. Swarovski sued Building #19 and managed to obtain a preliminary injunction.
Yes, indeed: Swarovski persuaded a United States district court judge to prohibit Building #19 from using the word Swarovski in an ad that stated, truthfully, that the company was selling Swarovski crystal collectibles. How, reasonable readers may wonder, was Building #19 supposed to promote its perfectly lawful sale of Swarovski products without using the name Swarovski? That is a question the district court can mull over at its leisure now that the Appeals Court has quashed the preliminary injunction.
In trademark law, the term we use to describe this situation is “nominative fair use.” This is the judge-made principle that allows you to use another person’s trademark so long as you’re not trying to mislead anyone. The Appeals Court noted that although the First Circuit recognized nominative fair use it had “never endorsed any particular version of the doctrine.” I respectfully submit that now would be a good time. Business owners, creators, and the general public would appreciate some certainty.