The Delhi High Court in the case of Christian Louboutin SAS v. Nakul Bajaj and Ors.[i], (hereinafter Louboutin case) has dealt in detail the circumstances where an E-commerce platform could be considered as an intermediary and when it loses the safe harbour under the Information Technology Act, 2000 (“Act”).
The facts of the case are as follows. The defendant has been operating a website named www.darveys.com (“Website”) offering for sale, various luxury products including the plaintiff’s brand of luxury shoes under the brand “Christian Louboutin”. The plaintiff (Christian Louboutin SAS), claims that the Website gives an impression that it is in some manner affiliated, sponsored or has been approved by the plaintiff for selling the plaintiff’s luxury products. The plaintiff therefore claimed that the display of plaintiff’s product on the Website results in the infringement of trade mark rights of the plaintiff and dissolution of the luxury status enjoyed by its products and brands.
The defendant’s claimed that the Website is an intermediary, as it not selling the products, but is merely enabling booking of such products through its online platform and that it is only booking orders on behalf of the sellers whose products are being displayed on their platform.
E-commerce platform and their role as intermediaries
In an e-commerce marketplace platform, it usually displays the name of the sellers and assists the customers by providing reviews of the various sellers who are listed on the platform. It also provides for other services such as online payment, maintaining warehouses, delivery and the like. The question that arises is at what point can the platform can say it is only an intermediary.
Section 2(w) of the Information Technology Act defines an intermediary as an “intermediary, with respect to any particular electronic records, means any person who on behalf of another person receives, stores, or transmits that record or provides any service with respect to that record or provides any service with respect to that record and includes telecom service providers, network service providers, internet service providers, web-hosting service providers, search engines, online payment sites online auction sites, online- market places, and cyber cafes.”
In Google France SARL, Google Inc. v. Louis Vuitton Malletier SA & Ors. (hereinafter, ‘Google France’), one of the point noted it that “it is necessary to examine whether the role played by that service provider is neutral, in the sense that its conduct is merely technical, automatic and passive, pointing to a lack of knowledge or control of the data which it stores.”
The Google France case has laid out certain principles on the liability of intermediaries and the Louboutin case makes a reference to it. Below are some useful excerpts from the judgement:
- Exemptions from liability of intermediaries are limited to the technical process of operating and giving access to a communication network. Such an exemption is needed for the purposes of making the transmission more efficient.
- The activity of the intermediary is merely technical, automatic and passive – meaning thereby that the intermediary does not have any knowledge or control over the information which is transmitted or stored.
- The intermediary gets the benefit of the exemption for being a “mere conduit” and for “caching”, when it is not involved in the information which is transmitted/translated.
- If any service provider deliberately collaborates with the recipient of a service, the exemption no longer applies.
- In order for the service provider to continue to enjoy the exemption, upon obtaining knowledge of any illegal activity, the service provider has to remove or disable access to the information.
- In order to constitute a mere conduit, the service provider should not initiate the transmission, select the receiver of the transmission, or select or modify the information contained in the transmission.
- The storage of the information has to be automatic, intermediate and transient.
- The provider should not obtain any data based on the use of the information.
- For claiming exemption from damages, the service provider should not have any knowledge of the illegal activity, and upon acquiring knowledge, should expeditiously remove or disable the information.
- Service providers do not have a general obligation to monitor the information which is transmitted or stored.
In the case of L’Oreal SA & Ors. v. eBay International AG & Ors.[ii], the Court of Justice of European Union held that an operator which provides assistance “which entails, in particular, optimizes the presentation of the offers for sale in question, or promotes them”, even if the operator has not played active role and he provides the above service, the operator can claim protection as an intermediary. However, the said intermediary, if upon becoming aware of the facts which lead to an inference that the offers made on the website were unlawful, failed to act expeditiously, then the exemption ceases.
It is essential to determine whether the service provider played an active role or not, and whether it has the knowledge or control over the data which is stored by it. Further, if the service provider has no knowledge, then upon obtaining knowledge of the unlawful activity, it should expeditiously remove the data or disable access, failing which the service provider may become liable.
In Inwood Laboratories, Inc. v. Ives Laboratories, Inc.[iii], the question of contributory negligence with regard to infringement of trademark by the online service provider and the manufacturer (famously known as ‘Inwood Test’) observed that “if a manufacturer or distributor intentionally induces another to infringe a trademark, or if it continues to supply its product to one, whom it knows or has reasons to know is engaging in trademark infringement, the manufacturer or the distributor is contributorially responsible for any harm done as a result of the deceit”.
In the Louboutin case, the Honourable High Court of Delhi, observed that the defendant had a membership fee to place an order for goods on the Website, guaranteed authenticity that the products procured and sold were from the international boutiques and luxury stores, shipping to customers would be only after quality checking.
The Court opined that the safe harbour provisions for intermediaries under section 79 of the Act is not absolute. An active participation by the intermediaries is to be examined and if there is an active participation then the ring of protection or exemption granted to the intermediaries would not apply.
With regards to trademark infringement, section 101 of the Trade Marks Act states “that a person shall be deemed to apply a trade mark when (a) the mark is placed, enclosed or annexed to any good which are sold or are exposed for sale, (b) when the mark is used in relation to the goods or services in any sign, advertisement, invoice, catalogue, business paper price list”. Further, section 102 states that “a person shall be deemed to falsely apply to goods or services a trade mark, who without the assent of the proprietor of the trade mark (a) applies such mark or a deceptively similar mark to goods or services or any package containing goods; (b) uses any package bearing a mark which is identical with or deceptively similar to the trade mark of such proprietor, for the purpose of packaging filling or wrapping therein any goods other than the genuine goods of the proprietor of the trade mark”. Therefore, when an ecommerce website actively participates and allows storing of counterfeit goods, it would be aiding in the infringement of the trademark.
In the Louboutin case, the Delhi HighCourt held that the defendant had not sold the plantiff’s products on its Website, though the Website did advertise and promote the plaintiff’s brand and products. The Court did not order for damages/ rendition of accounts.
The Court did give the following directions to the defendant on the activities of running the Website as an intermediary so as to (i) disclose the complete details of all its sellers, their addresses and contact details on its website (ii) obtain a certificate from its sellers that the goods are genuine (iii) If the sellers are not located in India, prior to uploading a product bearing the Plaintiff’s marks, it shall notify the plaintiff and obtain concurrence before offering the said products for sale on its platform (iv) If the sellers are located in India, it shall enter into a proper agreement, under which it shall obtain guarantee as to authenticity and genuinity of the products as also provide for consequences of violation of the same (v) Upon being notified by the Plaintiff of any counterfeit product being sold on its platform, it shall notify the seller and if the seller is unable to provide any evidence that the product is genuine, it shall take down the said listing and notify the plaintiff of the same, as per the Intermediary Guidelines 2011 (vi) It shall also seek a guarantee from the sellers that the product has not been impaired in any manner and that all the warranties and guarantees of the Plaintiff are applicable and shall be honoured by the Seller. Products of any sellers who are unable to provide such a guarantee would not be, shall not be offered on the Defendant’s platform (vii) All meta-tags consisting of the Plaintiff’s marks shall be removed with immediate effect.
It is certainly interesting to note the thought process of the Court and the direction that it took, in this judgment.
Author: Mr. Anuj Maharana
[i] Christian Louboutin SAS v. Nakul Bajaj and Ors., CS (COMM) 344/2018
[ii] L’Oreal SA & Ors. v. eBay International AG & Ors., Case C-324/09
[iii] Inwood Laboratories, Inc. v Ives Laboratories, Inc.,456 U.S. 844