Regulating Relevancy: Initial Interest Confusion and the Internet

Eric Goldman

Marquette University Law School


What is Initial Interest Confusion?

w   Defined: “The use of another’s trademark in a manner reasonably calculated to capture initial consumer attention, even though no actual sale is finally completed as a result of the confusion” (Brookfield)

w   Historically, IIC influenced the “actual confusion” or “purchaser care” analysis in a multi-factor likelihood of confusion test

w   Now, some courts allow IIC to bypass a multi-factor likelihood of confusion test


Pro-Plaintiff Holdings

w   Any search engine indexing provides evidence of IIC (Brookfield)

w   Any search engine optimization provides evidence of IIC (JK Harris)

w   Any possibility of temporary confusion on a user’s part provides evidence of IIC (NYSSCPA, OBH)

w   IIC occurs when there’s potential goodwill association (Mobil Oil, Elvis, Nissan)


Defenses to IIC

w   Word is not being used as a source identifier (Playboy v. Netscape)

w   Nominative fair use (Welles 9th Circuit)

n    Product not readily identifiable without the mark

n    Mark used only as reasonably necessary to identify the product

n    No suggestion of sponsorship or endorsement

w   Insufficient confusion (Chatam, Strick)

w   No passing off bait ‘n’ switch (Dorr-Oliver, Northland)

w   Parties aren’t competitors (TNN, BigStar, Checkpoint)

w   Disclaimers? (Brookfield, Bihari)


Criticisms of the Doctrine

w   Weak policy justifications

n    Bypasses multi-factor likelihood of confusion test

n    Ignores low “switching costs” by searchers

w   Relic of past search engine practices?

n    Makes questionable assumptions about search engine indexing practices

n    Assumes inefficiencies in marketplace for search tools

n    Assumes searchers expect perfect relevancy

w   Confers trademark rights in gross

n    Doesn’t limit itself to product classes

n    Protects non-famous marks

n    Can be used to stifle criticism and parody

n    Can be used to prevent comparative product and pricing information