There have been some recent court decisions that will be of interest to online businesses. Once an “online” business is successful, it is just a matter of time before competitors try to divert traffic intended for the successful business to their own competing websites. One way of diverting traffic is through the use of websites with similar names. With the rapid rise of social media, such as FACEBOOK, aggressive competitors are also establishing social media accounts with similar names. Another way, a more legitimate way, is through the acquisition of “sponsored” links, such as GOOGLE ads. These sponsored links appear in the search results whenever keywords associated with the successful business are entered into the search engine.
The old news is that in the case Michaels v. Michaels Stores Procurement Co, decided March 15, 2016, Canada’s Federal Court of Appeal stated that the Federal Court had jurisdiction to order the transfer of a confusing domain name. The new development is that in the case of Thoi Bao Inc v. 1913075 Ontario Ltd, decided December 7, 2016, Madam Justice McDonald of the Federal Court went a step further and ordered the defendant to transfer to the plaintiff his FACEBOOK account, his TWITTER account and “any other social media accounts under his ownership or control” that were confusing with the business of the plaintiff. In light of this decision, a successful business now has a remedy to use against competitors who are diverting traffic through the use of confusingly similar social media account names.
The other development relates to “passing off”, the court-created protection against trade misrepresentations. In order to be successful in an action for “passing off”, among other things, the plaintiff must show that there has been misrepresentation creating confusion in the public. The old news is that purchasing sponsored links, in and of itself, does not constitute “passing off”. This was established in the Federal Court decision in Vancouver Community College v. Vancouver Career College (Burnaby) Inc., in which the Trial Judge held that the time frame for determining whether there was confusion was when the consumer reached and viewed the defendant’s website. The Trial Judge found that there was nothing confusing at the defendant’s website and thus that any confusion was not sufficient to meet the requirements for “passing off”. The new development is that on January 26, 2017 the Federal Court of Appeal reviewed the Trial Judge’s decision. The Appeal Court determined that the Trial Judge had erred and that the correct time to assess confusion was when the consumer viewed the search engine results page. The Court of Appeal noted that the sponsored link merely indicated VCCollege.ca, without any content that would distinguish the defendant’s business from that of the plaintiff. In the circumstances, the sponsored link was confusing and constituted passing off. If your successful business has been the target of intentionally confusing sponsored links, you now have a remedy. Conversely, if your business pays for sponsored links, you must ensure that your sponsored links identify your business and are not confusing.