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Retail search results could infringe on trademark rights

California consumers who use Amazon.com for online shopping needs may be accustomed to using the search features of the site to find specific products, including branded items offered by third-party sellers. The company has recently faced a lawsuit related to trademark infringement based on the method by which search results are returned for a watch manufacturer's products. At the district court level, a judgement favored Amazon.com in the case, but on appeal, the Ninth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the decision.

The manufacturer's concern over trademark enforcement was based on the fact that Amazon does not actually sell their products. Further, the manufacturer did not allow its distributors to sell the products through Amazon. A query through the Amazon search feature provided related searches that involved the manufacturer's trademark without stating that the actual products were not available for sale on the site.

The judges deciding the appeal determined that interest confusion, the potential for customers to gain interest in a competing product through use of the manufacturer's trademark, was a matter of trademark infringement. Some of Amazon's competitors, in contrast, provide clarifications to inform consumers that the manufacturer's products are not available, averting interest confusion.

A dissenting opinion was issued in the case as one of the judges noted a similar situation in the restaurant industry. As a customer requests a certain brand of soda, a worker might inform that party that the brand is unavailable while offering then the competing brand that is available. In the Amazon case, the dissent points out that clear labeling ensures that customers will be aware that they are not purchasing the manufacturer's product. Copyright and trademark law can be complicated in a digital world. Strong legal support may be necessary for a company that is dealing with infringement issues, and a lawyer might be able to provide support.

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