I am happy to announce that I have the honor of publishing an opinion article in the European Intellectual Property Review (EIPR) to be released this month. Titled “Improvement over the Rest or More of the Same? Australia’s Proposed Extraterritorial Online Copyright Injunctive Reforms,” the article examines Australia’s recently-implemented copyright injunctive reforms that will allow a rights holder to obtain an injunction against a foreign-based website, and evaluates the reforms in relation to its foreign counterparts in the United States and Europe.
As this year comes to a close, I posted my last posting on The IPKat as a guest contributor about updates to Australia’s proposed injunctive online copyright enforcement reforms. This posting discussed recent updates to a blog posting I made on this blog in August concerning these proposed reforms. Particularly, I highlighted recent implementation and freedom of speech concerns about the proposed reforms.
The IPKat posting is available here.
Co-author Peter Dang, recent graduate of the University of Washington School of Law and admitted member of the Washington State bar.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but try telling that to Converse. Last month, Converse filed multiple lawsuits in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York against 31 alleged infringers including Sketchers, H&M and others, for importing and selling knockoffs of Converse’s iconic shoes, the Chuck Taylor. Converse claimed that such alleged infringers infringed the Chuck Taylor’s distinctive shoe designs (aka trade dress) (15 U.S.C. § 1114), diluted such trade dress’ distinctiveness (15 U.S.C. § 1125(c)), and used such trade dress in a manner that constituted unfair competition (15 U.S.C. § 1125(a)). The trade dress at issue in both cases consists of Chuck Taylor’s federally registered “midsole design” and “outsole design” (collectively, the “Designs”). The midsole design (Reg. No. 4,398,753 – see image above) refers specifically to the Chuck Taylor’s “toe bumper” and “toe cap,” while the outsole design (Reg. No. 1,588,960) refers to the distinct diamond pattern on the sole of the shoe.
Simultaneously to filing its federal lawsuits, Converse filed a parallel complaint at the International Trade Commission (ITC) against the same alleged infringers for unfair trade practices (19 U.S.C. §1337 et seq.) related to importing shoes that infringed the Designs.
So why are these cases important? Beyond the large amount of potential financial recovery at stake, the outcome of these proceedings will have strong implications for cross-border trademark protection. Converse’s victory in its federal lawsuits may provide greater means for U.S. and foreign retail product producers to protect their products’ designs from unauthorized use in the U.S. by potentially expanding U.S. legal protections afforded to clothing and footwear trade dress. Further, an ITC ruling in Converse’s favor provides Converse the means to not only prevent the infringement of their trade dress, it also helps to stem the cross-border flow of shoes infringing their Designs.
Commentators have reported that Converse faces challenges in its actions because the Designs’ elements may be considered functional, and thus not protectable. Under U.S. trademark law, only distinctive non-functional elements of trade dress are protectable. See Two Pesos, Inc. v. Taco Cabana, Inc., 505 U.S. 763, 775 (1992). Since the Designs’ rubber toe bumper and cap, and outside design are arguably used to prevent wear and provide foot protection, they may be considered functional elements of the Chuck Taylor, and thus unprotectable.
In contrast, others believe that footwear trade dress precedent may give Converse the legal basis it needs to succeed in such actions through the Designs’ potential secondary meaning. In Christian Louboutin, S.A. v. Yves Saint Laurent Am. Holding, Inc., 2012 WL 3832285 (2nd Cir. 2012), the Court found that Louboutin’s iconic red sole of its luxury women’s shoe to be distinctive despite being a element of the shoe’s sole due to secondary meaning (aka acquired distinctiveness) that the sole had acquired amongst the general public, thereby granting Louboutin trade dress protection to its shoe’s red sole. As the Chuck Taylor shoes have been widely available in U.S. commerce for decades, Converse may be able to establish that the Designs acquired secondary meaning amongst the U.S. public, and are thus protectable despite their apparent functionality.
Impact of the ITC Action
Although Converse’s victories in its federal court actions would likely result in substantial financial recovery for Converse, a favorable ITC decision would arguably provide Converse greater cross-border benefits. The ITC provides rights holders of U.S. patent, trademark and copyright rights the means to petition the U.S. government under Section 337 of the 1930 Tariff Act to conduct an investigation of unfair trade practices, including the importation of goods infringing such U.S. IP rights. If such infringing importation is found, the ITC may issue a ban on such infringing imports. In Converse’s case, an ITC issued ban would prevent the alleged infringers’ importation of footwear utilizing the Designs into the U.S., and potentially deter transshipments of such footwear to other markets from the U.S. As such a ITC decision impacts the importation and exportation of shoes infringing the Designs, it arguably has more cross-border benefits as it could effectively provide Converse trademark protection across multiple markets through one legal action.
What’s The Takeaway?
If successful in both its federal and ITC actions, Converse may obtain substantial financial recovery and injunctive relief to prevent imitators from selling their shoe designs in the U.S. and potentially other markets. More broadly, a favorable ITC ruling for Converse would provide Converse the tools to protect its Designs and control the flow of goods infringing such Designs across markets, a strategy that commentators have reported is overlooked, but has the potential to provide enhanced cross-border trademark protections.
Australia’s Attorney-General’s Department (“AG”) recently opened a public consultation on potential reforms to Australian copyright laws (Copyright Act 1968; “Copyright Act”) that would provide copyright owners and any person or entity possessing rights in copyright protected work(s) (collectively, “Rights Holders”) enhanced cross-border copyright protections. Among multiple reforms detailed in the public consultation discussion paper entitled Online Copyright Infringement (“Paper”), the AG proposed that the Copyright Act be amended to provide a Rights Holder the ability to apply for a Court order to block a foreign-based website from accessing Australia.
Titled Proposal 2 in the Paper (“Proposal”), the proposed amendments would allow a Rights Holder to obtain an Australian Court order against an Internet service provider (“ISP”) hosting an infringing website outside of Australia to block the site from access to Australia if the website’s dominate purpose is to infringe copyright. If enacted, a qualifying Rights Holder could effectively obtain limited Australian judicial protection for their work(s) outside of Australia, or conversely allow a Rights Holder to stem the international reach of a particular infringing website. The Proposal would be particularly useful for enforcement in cases where a Rights Holder wishes to enforce copyright protections in their work(s) against a non-Australian website hosted in a country whose laws or legal system is unwilling or unable to enforce the Rights Holder’s rights.
However, there are a number of issues about the Proposal that Rights Holders need to be aware of:
Legal Assistance Likely Required. A Rights Holder would likely need Australian legal assistance to obtain an order under the Proposal. As mentioned, a Rights Holder wishing to block a non-Australian based website under the Proposal would have to obtain an Australian court order to block the website from Australia. To do so, a Rights Holder would likely have to hire an Australian attorney, and particularly an attorney with intellectual property experience, to obtain such an order. By effectively requiring such legal assistance, seeking enforcement under the Proposal will have financial costs and would likely be more expensive that simply submitting a website take down petition to the ISP hosting the website. However, a Rights Holder’s enforcement options may be limited to judicial action such as that offered under the Proposal if the country where an infringing website is hosted does not possess an effective notice and takedown system.
High Burden of Proof. Rights Holders wishing to utilize the Proposal’s enforcement methods may face a high evidentiary burden to qualify for its protection. As detailed in the Report, in order for an Australian Court to grant an order against an ISP under the Proposal, a Rights Holder needs to establish that the website’s “dominate purpose” is to infringe copyright. Requiring that a Rights Holder establish that a foreign-based website’s dominant purpose is to infringe copyright likely establishes a high evidentiary burden as it requires showing that the site’s main purpose is to infringe copyright instead of merely establishing that the site infringes copyright as provided under most national notice and takedown enforcement systems. Based on this higher evidentiary burden, obtaining an injunctive order under the Proposal will likely be more difficult for a Rights Holder to obtain than a notice takedown. More generally, the Proposal’s evidentiary burden will likely exempt a large number of non-Australian websites that infringe copyright, and would otherwise be subject to enforcement action, simply because their infringing acts do not constitute their “dominate” purpose.
Indemnification and Enforcement Costs. The Proposal would also require that a Rights Holder “meet any reasonable costs associated with an ISP giving effect to an order,” and indemnify an ISP against any damages claimed by a third party against the ISP arising out of the ISP’s enforcement of an order under the Proposal. The financial costs an ISP may have for giving effect to an order under the Proposal is undefined, thereby making it unclear on how much it would cost for a Rights Holder to compensate an ISP for enacting an order under the Proposal.
Further, requiring that a Rights Holder indemnify a foreign ISP, namely provide legal protection for the ISP against any legal action it may face for complying with a Court order under the Proposal, would likely pose substantial risks and possible costs to Rights Holders. If a foreign website owner’s business is harmed when their website is blocked from Australia by an order under the Proposal, the Rights Holder in question will likely have to cover the legal costs and obligations of the ISP in any proceeding brought by the website owner against the ISP as the Proposal does not provide any limits on a Rights Holder’s ISP indemnity obligations. This makes seeking enforcement under the Proposal a riskier option that submitting a takedown notice as most countries’ notice and takedown systems do not generally mandate that a Rights Holder indemnify an ISP for any enforcement action taken by the ISP on behalf of the Right Holder arising out of a takedown notice.
It is Still a Proposal. The Proposal is just that, a proposal. It remains unclear whether the Proposal will be implemented, and if so what additional requirements, costs or obligations a Rights Holder may have in seeking enforcement under its protections.
What’s The Takeaway? If implemented, the Proposal would provide Rights Holders enhanced cross-border copyright enforcement protections by allowing them to prevent the access of foreign-hosted infringing websites into Australia. However, the Proposal has costs and risks that Rights Holders need to seriously consider, especially if cheaper and less risky enforcement options such as takedown notices are available. Further, the ambiguity of the Proposal’s costs and obligations mean that further details about the Proposal is needed in order to determine what particular costs and obligations Rights Holders will have in seeking enforcement under the Proposal.
On a side note, those who are interested in providing comments on the Proposal or other proposals in the Paper may submit comments to the AG (instructions here) before September 1, 2014.