Iconic fashion brand, Cartier, is debatably most famous for its LOVE Bracelet. Cartier has translated this design to rings, necklaces and earrings that sell for thousands of dollars. Recently, according to Cartier and Amazon, fake versions of this fine jewelry were illegally marketed and sold through a sophisticated web scam.
Amazon and Cartier claim that various social media accounts (the “Alleged Infringers”) depicted Cartier’s jewelry in 64 Instagram posts. These posts included a description of Cartier’s jewelry and a link to purchase the jewelry on the Amazon Store. When viewers clicked on the link to purchase the merchandise, however, it allegedly directed them to unbranded goods on Amazon. Amazon believes that, despite its strong counterfeit detection software, the Alleged Infringers circumvented these protections by uploading ambiguous and unbranded photographs of Cartier’s jewelry. Moreover, Amazon alleges that after buyers purchased the products they believed to be Cartier’s, the Alleged Infringers sent purchasers counterfeit LOVE jewelry.
Cartier and Amazon filed trademark infringement claims and false designation claims against the Alleged Infringers. Specifically, each asserts that the Alleged Infringers advertised, marketed, and sold “identical or substantially indistinguishable” jewelry bearing Cartier’s marks without permission. Further, such actions are likely to deceive and confuse Cartier and Amazon’s customers into purchasing counterfeit goods. Cartier and Amazon together claim that the Alleged Infringers made false designations of origin, which negatively impacts Cartier and Amazon’s business reputations and customer relations.
Cartier seeks damages for trademark infringement, which is the unlawful use of another party’s legally protected trademark. To win at trial, Cartier is required to prove that (1) it owns a valid and protectable trademark and (2) that the Alleged Infringers’ use of the mark is likely to cause confusion among consumers.
Cartier has a strong trademark claim. As an initial matter, Cartier definitely has a valid and protectable trademark. The mark was registered with the United States Patent and Trademark Office and has continuously and extensively been used in commerce.
The second element, likelihood of confusion, is more complex. To determine whether confusion is likely, the Court will analyze an eight-factor test, called the “Polaroid factors”. The Polaroid factors include the following:
The court typically reviews these factors through a balancing test to evaluate whether there is a likelihood of confusion. Some factors, such as evidence of actual confusion by relevant consumers, may be given more weight than others depending on the situation.
Overall, the Polaroid Factors seem to weigh in Cartier’s favor as a reasonable consumer would likely be confused by the Alleged Infringers’ jewelry. But this may not be a home run for Cartier because its consumers are very sophisticated, therefore, hard to fool. Also, the Alleged Infringers’ jewelry is substantially less valuable, meaning a separate market for those goods may exist.
Nonetheless, in cases that involve counterfeiting, like here, courts may bypass the Polaroid Test (Cartier Int’l B.V. v. Ben-Menachem, No. 06 CIV. 3917, 2008 WL 64005 (S.D.N.Y. Jan. 3, 2008)). Rather than using the Polaroid Test, these courts would evaluate if the infringer used the Plaintiff’s mark to sell counterfeit goods.
In Cartier’s case, the unauthorized jewelry will likely be considered counterfeit if the Alleged Infringers did intend to advertise and sell identical and substantially indistinguishable jewelry bearing Cartier’s mark. Along with a less strenuous legal battle, the counterfeiting accusations could result in harsher punishments for the Alleged Infringers, as penalties for counterfeiting are more severe than infringement due to public policy concerns.
Cartier and Amazon’s next claim is False Designation of Origin. False designation of origin occurs when a defendant lies about the origin, maker, or brand name of the product, inferring that the product originated from the plaintiff.
Cartier and Amazon claimed that the Alleged Infringers misled and confused consumers as to the origin and authenticity of the products sold in connection with Cartier’s trademark. Cartier believes that this false designation of origin permanently harms its business reputation and goodwill, in violation of federal law. Cartier asserts that it is entitled to an injunction against the Alleged Infringers due to this alleged “irreparable damage.” Cartier also requests that Alleged Infringers return their profits, on top of, attorney’s fees and additional costs and possibly treble (triple) damages. Amazon also points to its reputational harm, highlighting that the Alleged Infringers’ customer deception harmed its efforts to create an anti-counterfeit market. Amazon believes a money award alone will not fully compensate it, but rather it is entitled to an injunction against the Alleged Infringers, in addition to attorneys’ fees and the costs of bringing the lawsuit.
Under the Lanham Act, a plaintiff can succeed on a false designation of origin claim if the plaintiff can show:
Cartier and Amazon will likely succeed on the first and second elements of this claim because Cartier’s marks are entitled to protection and counterfeit goods are inherently likely to confuse consumers as to the origin of the Alleged Infringers’ products.
The third prong, false designation of origin, looks at whether (1) the plaintiff has a valid mark entitled to protection under the Lanham Act and (2) the defendant used a similar mark in commerce in a way that would likely cause confusion among relevant consumers. Cartier and Amazon can likely prove that the Alleged Infringers sold products with a false designation which infers that Cartier produced and sold the products because:
While Cartier and Amazon’s claims appear to be viable, there are several defenses to trademark infringement and false designation of origin. In addition, the Lanham Act offers several defenses.
The Alleged Infringers could assert a number of defenses, such as:
However, these defenses would likely fail:
The Alleged Infringers could also try to argue that their products are not counterfeits, which, as previously discussed, could potentially complicate the likeliness of confusion analysis. This defense is weak at best. Cartier and Amazon noted in their complaint that the Alleged Infringers’ products’ serial numbers do not correspond to the serial numbers Cartier assigns to genuine products. Cartier and Amazon also noted that while the alleged counterfeit products contain the same trademarks, there are aesthetic features that substantially differ from genuine Cartier products.
If successful, Cartier may recover actual damages, the Alleged Infringers’ profits from the sale of unauthorized jewelry and attorney’s fees under the Lanham Act. The Court may also award Cartier treble damages, which is an award up to three times the actual damages attributable to the Alleged Infringers’ trademark infringement. Alternatively, Cartier may receive statutory damages under 15 U.S.C. § 1117(c). Statutory damages are typically used when it is too complex to establish the level of harm caused to the plaintiff.
Cartier and Amazon likely have the stronger argument because if the Alleged Infringers did advertise, market and sell jewelry with Cartier’s mark, they did so without Cartier’s authorization. It follows that reasonable consumers would be misled by the Alleged Infringers’ actions. In addition, the Alleged Infringers’ potential counterarguments seem flimsy.
Counterfeit goods are considered to be against public policy to protect consumers from fraud and to protect intellectual property. The ability to receive a valid trademark also provides incentives to creators to produce quality products. If the Alleged Infringers’ products are deemed to be counterfeit, which is likely based on the complaint, they will almost certainly lose at trial.
If you are a trademark owner interested in learning more about your rights, contact an experienced attorney to discuss the best course of action.
Contributions to this blog by Melissa Levine.