Summary – What can the owner (or licensee) of a trademark do if an unauthorized third party resells products with its trademark on an online platform? This issue was addressed in the judgment of C-567/18 of 2 April 2020, in which the Court of Justice of the European Union confirmed that platforms (Amazon Marketplace, in this case) storing goods which infringe trademark rights are not liable for such infringement, unless the platform puts them on the market or is aware of the infringement. Conversely, platforms (such as Amazon Retail) that contribute to the distribution or resell the products themselves may be liable.
Coty – a German company, distributor of perfumes, holding a licence for the EU trademark “Davidoff” – noted that third-party sellers were offering on Amazon Marketplace perfumes bearing the “Davidoff Hot Water” brand, which had been put in the EU market without its consent.
After reaching an agreement with one of the sellers, Coty sued Amazon in order to prevent it from storing and shipping those perfumes unless they were placed on the EU market with Coty’s consent. Both the Court of First Instance and the Court of Appeal rejected Coty’s request, which brought an appeal before the German Court of Cassation, which in turn referred the matter to the Court of Justice of the EU.
What is the Exhaustion of the rights conferred by a trademark
The principle of exhaustion is envisaged by EU law, according to which, once a good is put on the EU market, the proprietor of the trademark right on that specific good can no longer limit its use by third parties.
This principle is effective only if the entry of the good (the reference is to the individual product) on the market is done directly by the right holder, or with its consent (e.g. through an operator holding a licence).
On the contrary, if the goods are placed on the market by third parties without the consent of the proprietor, the latter may – by exercising the trademark rights established by art. 9, par. 3 of EU Regulation 2017/1001 – prohibit the use of the trademark for the marketing of the products.
By the legal proceedings which ended before the Court of Justice of the EU, Coty sought to enforce that right also against Amazon, considering it to be a user of the trademark, and therefore liable for its infringement.
What is the role of Amazon?
The solution of the case revolves around the role of the web platform.
Although Amazon provides users with a unique search engine, it hosts two radically different sales channels. Through the Amazon Retail channel, the customer buys products directly from the Amazon company, which operates as a reseller of products previously purchased from third party suppliers.
The Amazon Marketplace, on the other hand, displays products owned by third-party vendors, so purchase agreements are concluded between the end customer and the vendor. Amazon gets a commission on these transactions, while the vendor assumes the responsibility for the sale and can manage the prices of the products independently.
According to the German courts which rejected Coty’s claims in the first and second instance, Amazon Marketplace essentially acts as a depository, without offering the goods for sale or putting them on the market.
Coty, vice versa, argues that Amazon Marketplace, by offering various marketing-services (including: communication with potential customers in order to sell the products; provision of the platform through which customers conclude the contract; and consistent promotion of the products, both on its website and through advertisements on Google), can be considered as a “user” of the trademark, within the meaning of Article 9, paragraph 3 of EU Regulation 2017/1001.
The decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union
Advocate General Campos Sanchez-Bordona, in the opinion delivered on 28 November 2019, had suggested to the Court to distinguish between: the mere depositaries of the goods, not to be considered as “users” of the trademark for the purposes of EU Regulation 2017/1001; and those who – in addition to providing the deposit service – actively participate in the distribution of the goods. These latter, in the light of art. 9, par. 3, letter b) of EU Regulation 2017/1001, should be considered as “users” of the trademark, and therefore directly responsible in case of infringements.
The Bundesgerichtshof (Federal Court of Justice of Germany), however, had already partially answered the question when it referred the matter to the European Court, stating that Amazon Marketplace “merely stored the goods concerned, without offering them for sale or putting them on the market”, both operations carried out solely by the vendor.
The EU Court of Justice ruled the case on the basis of some precedents, in which it had already stated that:
- The expression “using” involves at the very least, the use of the sign in the commercial communication. A person may thus allow its clients to use signs which are identical or similar to trademarks without itself using those signs (see Google vs Louis Vuitton, Joined Cases C-236/08 to C-238/08, par. 56).
- With regard to e-commerce platforms, the use of the sign identical or similar to a trademark is made by the sellers, and not by the platform operator (see L’Oréal vs eBay, C‑324/09, par. 103).
- The service provider who simply performs a technical part of the production process cannot be qualified as a “user” of any signs on the final products. (see Frisdranken vs Red Bull, C‑119/10, par. 30. Frisdranken is an undertaking whose main activity is filling cans, supplied by a third party, already bearing signs similar to Redbull’s registered trademarks).
On the basis of that case-law and the qualification of Amazon Marketplace provided by the referring court, the European Court has ruled that a company which, on behalf of a third party, stores goods which infringe trademark rights, if it is not aware of that infringement and does not offer them for sale or place them on the market, is not making “use” of the trademark and, therefore, is not liable to the proprietor of the rights to that trademark.
After Coty had previously been the subject of a historic ruling on the matter (C-230/16 – link to the Legalmondo previous post), in this case the Court of Justice decision confirmed the status quo, but left the door open for change in the near future.
A few considerations on the judgement, before some practical tips:
- The Court did not define in positive terms the criteria for assessing whether an online platform performs sufficient activity to be considered as a user of the sign (and therefore liable for any infringement of the registered trademark). This choice is probably dictated by the fact that the criteria laid down could have been applied (including to the various companies belonging to the Amazon group) in a non-homogeneous manner by the various Member States’ national courts, thus jeopardising the uniform application of European law.
- If the Court of Justice had decided the case the other way around, the ruling would have had a disruptive impact not only on Amazon’s Marketplace, but on all online operators, because it would have made them directly responsible for infringements of IP rights by third parties.
- If the perfumes in question had been sold through Amazon Retail, there would have been no doubt about Amazon’s responsibility: through this channel, sales are concluded directly between Amazon and the end customer.
- The Court has not considered whether: (i) Amazon could be held indirectly liable within the meaning of Article 14(1) of EU Directive 2000/31, as a “host” which – although aware of the illegal activity – did not prevent it; (ii) under Article 11 of EU Directive 2004/48, Coty could have acted against Amazon as an intermediary whose services are used by third parties to infringe its IP right. Therefore, it cannot be excluded that Amazon may be held (indirectly) liable for the infringements committed, including on the Marketplace: this aspect will have to be examined in detail on a case-by-case basis.
What can the owner (or licensee) of a trademark do if an unauthorized third party resells products with its trademark on an online platform?
- Gather as much evidence as possible of the infringement in progress: the proof of the infringement is one of the most problematic aspects of IP litigation.
- Contact a specialized lawyer to send a cease-and-desist letter to the unauthorized seller, ordering the removal of the products from the platform and asking the compensation for damages suffered.
- If the products are not removed from the marketplace, the trademark owner might take legal action to obtain the removal of the products and compensation for damages.
- In light of the judgment in question, the online platforms not playing an active role in the resale of goods remain not directly responsible for IP violations. Nevertheless, it is suggested to consider sending the cease-and-desist letter to them as well, in order to put more pressure on the unauthorised seller.
- The sending of the cease-and-desist letter also to the platform – especially in the event of several infringements – may also be useful to demonstrate its (indirect) liability for lack of vigilance, as seen in point 4) of the above list.