Social Media: A Lesson for Trademark Owners

A recent Quebec case and the resulting social media criticism provides a cautionary tale for trademark owners who aggressively assert their rights.  Success in the court room may in some instances have a negative impact on goodwill. Trademark owners should be taking social media into account when assessing their litigation options.

Deborah Kudzman, the founder of Olivia’s Oasis, Inc., was embroiled in a lengthy trademark dispute with Lassonde, the Quebec fruit-juice corporation. Kudzman’s company sells olive-oil based beauty products in association with the trademark OLIVIA’S OASIS & Design. Lassonde sells a line of juices in association with the trademark OASIS and other marks that include OASIS. In 2005, Lassonde commenced legal proceedings against Kudzman, alleging that Kudzman’s company was infringing its trademark rights.

In a judgment handed down in 2010, Justice Zerbisias of the Quebec Superior Court rejected Lassonde’s claim. The difference in the nature of the products, together with the visual disparities in the design of the marks, made confusion under s. 6 of the Trade-marks Act highly unlikely. Furthermore, while Lassonde’s juices and Kudzman’s beauty products were sold in some of the same stores, the placement of the OLIVIA’S OASIS products was in a completely different store section – in the non-edible, health and beauty section. Zerbisias J., in quashing Lassonde’s assertion of confusion, explained that “to impute the likelihood of confusion between Plaintiff’s and Defendant’s marks to the average consumer would insult him by assuming that such consumer is completely devoid of intelligence”.

Zerbisias J. also found that Lassonde’s action was an improper use of the legal process. Lassonde’s claim, with the unnecessary injunction application, threatening letters and overly complicated litigious conduct, was deemed to be “menacing and abusive”.  To compensate Kudzman and punish Lassonde, Kudzman was awarded $100,000 to cover her legal fees and $25,000 in punitive damages.

However, Kudzman’s story was not yet finished.  Lassonde appealed.  The Quebec Court of Appeal, while agreeing that there was no trademark infringement, reversed Zerbisias J.’s decision regarding Lassonde’s abuse of process and dismissed the $125,000 award. The Court of Appeal declined to hold that Lassonde’s behaviour was abusive, holding that Lassonde had every right to bring its trademark dispute before the court.

Little did Lassonde know, it was about to be inundated with social media criticism. La Presse, a Quebec newspaper, ran a story on April 7th, 2012 chronicling Kudzman’s battle with Lassonde. Within 8 hours, the story had been shared over 1000 times on Facebook, and #Oasis began trending in the Twittersphere, becoming the most used hashtag in Montreal that day. Hundreds of negative comments flooded Lassonde’s Facebook page. Guy Lepage, a Quebec media star, tweeted his boycott of OASIS juice products in protest to Lassonde’s actions.  Internet users reacted to the David and Goliath scenario that Kudzman’s story represented – almost universally decrying what they saw as Lassonde’s bullying tactics.

Lassonde, undoubtedly sensing a public relations nightmare, decided that same evening to offer a settlement. Although details are not available, Kudzman has assured the media that the settlement sum was similar to the amount that she was awarded in the lower-court decision – and was enough to cover the debts she had incurred during the protracted court case.

Ultimately, Lassonde’s success in the courtroom was irrelevant and it was public opinion as expressed in the social media that mattered. Whether Lassonde might have handled the litigation differently is an open question, but it is clear that owners, when enforcing trademark rights, need to consider the potential impact of social media.

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