A recent report on the contestable issue of trademark ‘bullying’ has been released by the US Department of Commerce but, unfortunately, its substance and conclusion fail to identify the exact extent of the problem. The report acknowledges that in some cases trademark owners seek to enforce their rights through channels of intimidation and bullying, but it declares that “after careful review of the available information regarding trademark litigation tactics and comments received from concerned intellectual property stakeholders, it is unclear whether small businesses are disproportionately harmed by enforcement tactics that are based on an unreasonable interpretation of the scope of an owner’s rights”. So, is the report worthless?
Sort of. The fact that the US Department of Commerce instigated such a report, in the first place, is certainly a positive step towards accepting that there might be a problem to begin with. But, the fact that the report considers ‘trademark bullying’ as an issue that does not even warrant the willingness of the US DoC to continue to identify ways to combat it, negates the whole idea behind this initiative. But for a moment, let’s go along with the conclusions of the report and let’s say that trademark bullying only occurs periodically and in a small scale. Does this make it better or justifies it better? The problem exists and it is the responsibility of the organs that shape trademark law to terminate it. It would have been much better if the report where to at least suggest an effort to this end.
However, more importantly the report suffers from two major flaws – one procedural and one substantive.
The report was instigated by the US Department of Commerce, which has a vested interest in reaching the results that it did. The US DoC is the umbrella for trademarks and the place big trademark firms turn to when they want additional forms of protection. It has the ears of the trademark community and one should not really look as back as 6 months ago, when the same trademark community that presumably this report is referring to, went to the US DoC demanding that the ICANN trademark policies for new gTLDs are amended and expanded to protect their interests. The DoC complied. So a case can be easily made here relating to the true willingness of the US DoC to produce a report that accurately reflects the extent of the problem.
On the substantive side, the report makes a very interesting reading. It often repeats that idea that a trademark constitutes a property right and affirms the right of trademark owners to police their trademarks. Although many could question the association of trademarks with dominium characteristics, currently trademarks are regarded as limited property rights, making the right to police more subjective than it generally is. In any event, the right to police a trademark is, as Eric Goldman says, “massively overstated”. But, for me, the main substantive flaw in the report is the lack of considering trademark bullying also in the context of domain name disputes. I think that it is specifically in the context of domain names that trademark intimidation exceeds the permissible boundaries of sending a simple ‘cease and desist’ letter and becomes bullying. And, it is most certainly in this same context that trademark owners often overstate their rights and seek to expand them much beyond what trademark law allows them to. It is, finally, in this context that the party subjected to the trademark bullying most often does not have the means, the resources or often the understanding of the processes. It is really unfortunate that the report does not suggest ways to address the way trademark owners view their rights on domain names and the great lengths they are willing to go into securing what they perceive as their right. In this context, the report should have sought to include, in addition to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) legitimate registrants, entrepreneurs and innovators and should have considered the data in the ChillingEffects Clearinghouse as nothing less than evidence of an ongoing problem.
But, this report can be of great use. Its doubtful conclusions can and will be used as justification within ICANN not to address the problem. The UDRP is currently undergoing its first ever review in ten years. The process has been set in motion and it moving towards its various procedural steps. When we eventually reach the stage of talking about the experience of trademark owners, domain name registrants and the whole constitution of the UDRP, we cannot do that without mentioning the problem of trademark bullying. I fear that the conclusions of this report will prevent us from even putting it on the table.