I, like most women, want a present in a little blue box from Tiffany & Company (a/k/a Tiffany & Co.) This is not just because the company bears my name (I only wish I were an owner of the company), but because Tiffany & Co.’s exquisite jewelry is associated with the fabulous blue box. Tiffany & Co. has been around for over 170 years. The mystique of Tiffany & Co. was enhanced by the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” starring the beloved Audrey Hepburn. To protect this long-established brand and trademark that epitomizes luxury and attentive customer service, Tiffany & Co. took to the courts to obtain protection from Internet sales of counterfeits.
eBay has become a hotbed for counterfeit sales of many high-end products. To assess the impact of this practice, Tiffany & Co. embarked on two buying programs where it bought products that had been represented to be authentic Tiffany & Co. merchandise on eBay. The overwhelming majority of these purchases, as much as seventy-five percent, were fakes.
To combat this trademark infringement and dilution, Tiffany & Co. sued eBay in 2004 alleging that eBay had facilitated and allowed these fake or counterfeit items to be sold on its website (bringing six causes of action, including various trademark infringement, dilution and false advertising claims under the Lanham Act). Last month, a New York District Court found that Tiffany & Co.—not eBay—was responsible for protecting its brand and trademark on the auction site. In other words, eBay is not responsible for keeping its users from selling fake jewelry with the Tiffany & Co. name. eBay is only required to take appropriate action when it receives notice of the infringement, presumably from Tiffany & Co. Not surprisingly, Tiffany & Co. has appealed this decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
Does this decision ignore an important tenet of the Lanham Act—that it is supposed to protect consumers and trademark owners? Should eBay and other sites such as Amazon.com have independent obligations not to contribute to trademark infringement (i.e., policing their websites)?
Several other high-end companies have sued eBay in Europe and have fared much better than Tiffany & Co. did in the United States. A French judge ordered eBay to pay 40 million euros (in light of the current low value of the United States dollar, this would translate to $63.2 million) to LVMH Mo—ët Hennessy Louis Vuitton over charges of selling fakes. Similarly, the German courts held that eBay must employ preventative measures against the sale of fake Rolex watches. Unless the Second Circuit overturns the New York District Court’s decision, consumers and trademark owners will receive more protection in Europe than in the United States. Should American courts be more friendly to trademark owners?