Meta Tags and Customer Confusion

Improper use of someone else's trademark in your meta tags can land you in legal hot water.

A meta tag is an HTML (hypertext markup language) code embedded on a Web page that is used by the website owner to identify the site content. Meta tags are powerful tools because they have a direct effect on the frequency with which many search engines will find a website.

Meta tags have been the subject of trademark lawsuits, because companies have used them to divert or confuse consumers. For example, Company A inserts the trademark name of a rival business, Company B, into its meta tag. A customer using a search engine to find Company B is diverted to Company A instead.

The deceptive use of another company's trademark in this way can result in a successful trademark infringement lawsuit, leading to an award of financial damages and, in some cases, attorney fees. But there are some instances when the use of another company's trademark is permitted in a meta tag. (See Permissible Uses of Trademarks in Meta Tags, below.)

How Meta Tags Work

Meta tags do not affect the appearance of a website and are not visible when you look at a Web page, but they provide information regarding the content of the site. For example, the keyword meta tag for a website offering handmade watches and related items may appear as follows:

<META NAME ="Keywords" CONTENT="Handmade watches, watches, time pieces, clocks, wristwatches">

And the description meta tag (which also appears in many search engines' results pages) may look like:

<META NAME ="Description" CONTENT="Exclusive handmade watches from Germany. Sterling silver, leather, Swiss Army.">

Meta tags are used primarily by search engines that wade through the HTML code and text of each page. When a search engine finds a search term in a meta tag, it indexes the Web page for display in its search results. Over the past few years, because websites manipulated their keywords so much, keyword meta tags decreased in importance in search algorithms. In fact, Google ignores keyword meta tags altogether, although it still relies somewhat on description meta tags.

Using Meta Tags to Divert Web Surfers

Some websites use meta tags in a deceptive manner to lure Web surfers. Instead of using terms that properly describe the site, some programmers substitute the names of competing companies. For example, a rival shoe manufacturer may bury the meta tag "Nike" in its Web page to lure Web surfers searching for Nike products. In the case of the website selling handmade watches, the meta tag might include "Rolex, Swatch, Bulova, Cartier."

This kind of deceptive use of another company's trademark in a meta tag is a form of trademark infringement when it confuses consumers. One judge described the practice as similar to a shop owner posting a sign with another company's trademark in front of its shop. (Brookfield Communications v. West Coast Entertainment, 174 F.3d 1036 (9th Cir. 1999).)

EXAMPLE: sells mainframe computers over the Internet. Bigcomputers does not sell IBM mainframes but nevertheless inserts "IBM, mainframe" into its meta tags. John is looking for an IBM mainframe, and his search engine lists Bigcomputers as a "hit." John visits and is initially confused; he can't find any IBM products. He emails the site and Bigcomputers responds that it doesn't sell IBMs, but it has many equivalent machines at discounted prices.

Stopping the Use of Infringing Meta Tags

To curb this type of trademark infringement, the trademark owner must first request that the offending website stop the deceptive use. If the use continues and the two companies cannot reach an agreement, the trademark owner may file a lawsuit in federal district court. If the trademark owner prevails, the court may order the offending website to pay money damages and, in some cases, the trademark owner's attorney fees as well. In egregious cases of intentional deception, the monetary award may amount to several hundred thousand dollars.

Permissible Uses of Trademarks in Meta Tags

Not every use of another company's trademark in a meta tag is illegal. When the trademark is used only to describe the goods or services of a company or their geographic origin, it is permitted under trademark law as a "fair use." For example, if a site distributes literature and music from the Amazon region, it may use the word "Amazon" in its meta tags. This use would not infringe the trademark, because the term "Amazon" is being accurately used to describe the goods offered at the site.

In one actual case, former Playmate Terri Welles established and used Playboy and Playmate in her site's meta tags. This use of Playboy's trademarks was permitted, because Ms. Welles was using the terms to describe herself and to properly index the pages. In addition, the court in this case was influenced by the fact that most of the free Web pages at the site included a disclaimer at the bottom: "This site is neither endorsed, nor sponsored by, nor affiliated with Playboy Enterprises, Inc. PLAYBOY, PLAYMATE OF THE YEAR and PLAYMATE OF THE MONTH are registered trademarks of Playboy Enterprises, Inc." (Playboy Enterprises, Inc. v. Welles, 7 F. Supp. 2d 1098 (Cal. S.D. 1998).)

Unfortunately, there is no clear test for proving fair use, and even a merely descriptive use of a trademark in a meta tag may trigger a lawsuit.

Commonsense Use of Trademarks in Meta Tags

To avoid the expense and hassle of a lawsuit, you should avoid deceptive uses of another company's trademark in your website unless the other company has consented to the use. Such consent might be granted, for example, if you are a distributor for the trademarked brands.

When in doubt about using a trademark in your meta tag, leave it out. Not only is it unethical and illegal to use trademarks deceptively, but it's a bad business decision. Deceptive trademark meta tags can be easily uncovered, and many well-known trademark owners regularly troll the Net searching for such violations. The potential financial and legal consequences vastly outweigh the increased traffic to your site.

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