Commentary

Microsoft To Finally Let Companies Use Others' Trademarks As Search Triggers

In a major change in policy, Microsoft has decided to allow marketers to use other companies' trademarks to trigger search ads.

"To come in line with search industry practices, as of March 3rd, Microsoft will cease editorial investigations into complaints about trademarks used as keywords to trigger ads on Bing & Yahoo Search in the United States and Canada," the company says. The change was first reported by Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman

Google has allowed trademarks to trigger search ads since 2004. While the move troubled some trademark owners -- and even sparked a few lawsuits -- it seems to have been good for Google's growth.

What's more, Google has prevailed in court in the few cases that went to trial. Back in 2004 Geico lost a lawsuit alleging that its trademark was infringed when Google allowed Geico rivals to use its name to trigger search ads. The judge in that case ruled that Geico hadn't proven that consumers were confused by this use of its trademark.

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More recently, a federal judge in Alexandria, Va. dismissed a similar trademark infringement lawsuit by Rosetta Stone against Google. Rosetta Stone appealed that decision to the 4th Circuit, which is considering the matter.

Even though Microsoft, too, might face litigation as a result of the move, the policy change is for the better for consumers.

That's because not all Web users who type brand names into search engines are doing so because they want to buy that particular brand. Some users might, but others might be using the brand name as a proxy for the type of product they're researching.

While trademark owners can legitimately object when their trademarks are used in a confusing way, they shouldn't -- and don't -- have the right to control when their names can be used by others. Otherwise companies wouldn't be able to distinguish their products from the competition by name -- such as when a manufacturer of a generic drug compares its price to that of the brand version.

Ultimately, allowing trademarks to serve as keyword triggers enables consumers to retrieve more information when they search. And that alone can make Microsoft and Yahoo more appealing to users -- or at least the ones who click on search ads.

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