One prominent case that addressed the liability of online marketplaces in trademark infringement was Christian Louboutin SAS vs Nakul Bajaj & Others[i] decided on 2nd November 2018 by the Hon’ble Delhi High Court. But before we delve into the particular case or understand the liability of intermediaries, let us first understand who falls within the ambit of intermediaries and when is an intermediary exempted from liability.
Definition of Intermediaries
The term “intermediaries” is defined under section 2(w) of Information Technology Act, 2000 which says
“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 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.
Exemption from the liability/ Safe Harbour Provision
Section 79 of the Information Technology Act provides certain immunities to the intermediaries. That the intermediary shall not be liable for any third-party information, data or communication link made available or hosted by him. Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 is extracted below:
- Notwithstanding anything contained in any law for the time being in force but subject to the provisions of sub-sections (2) and (3), an intermediary shall not be liable for any third party information, data, or communication link made available or hosted by him.
- The provisions of sub-section (1) shall apply if– (a) the function of the intermediary is limited to providing access to a communication system over which information made available by third parties is transmitted or temporarily stored or hosted; or (b) the intermediary does not– (i) initiate the transmission, (ii) select the receiver of the transmission, and (iii) select or modify the information contained in the transmission; (c) the intermediary observes due diligence while discharging his duties under this Act and also observes such other guidelines as the Central Government may prescribe in this behalf.
- The provisions of sub-section (1) shall not apply if– (a) the intermediary has conspired or abetted or aided or induced, whether by threats or promise or otherwise in the commission of the unlawful act; (b) upon receiving actual knowledge, or on being notified by the appropriate Government or its agency that any information, data or communication link residing in or connected to a computer resource controlled by the intermediary is being used to commit the unlawful act, the intermediary fails to expeditiously remove or disable access to that material on that resource without vitiating the evidence in any manner.
Section 79 of the Act elaborates on the exemption from liabilities of intermediaries and Section 79(2)(c) mentions that intermediaries must observe due diligence while discharging their duties and observe such other guidelines as prescribed by the Central Government. Accordingly, Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules, 2011 were notified on 11th April 2011.
Though the Indian Courts have reviewed Section 79 of IT Act, 2000 (Safe Harbour Provisions) on various facts and situation including in the cases of protecting online free speech (Shreya Singhal V. Union of India[ii]), uploading content and copyright violations (My Space Inc Vs. Super Cassettes Industries Limited[iii]) and design infringement (Kent Ro Systems Limited & Anr Vs. Amit Kotak and Ors[iv])etc, the position that is considered by Indian courts on violation of trademarks rights by e-commerce platforms and the extent of protection awarded to them was unclear till recent past.
The landmark judgment passed by the Hon’ble Delhi Court in Christian Louboutin SAS vs Nakul Bajaj & Others tried to establish the liability of intermediaries on trademark infringement cases and the same is discussed below:
Christian Louboutin SAS vs Nakul Bajaj & Others
The Plaintiffs (Christian Louboutin), manufacturer of luxury shoes well known for their red soles filed a trademark infringement suit against an e-commerce website www.darveys.com (Defendants). The Plaintiffs had also obtained trademark registration for the word mark, device mark CHRISTIAN LOUBOUTIN and also for their red sole mark in India. The Plaintiffs claimed that their products were sold only through an authorized network of exclusive distributors.
The Defendants were selling various luxury products on their website including the Plaintiff’s products by claiming that they were 100% authentic. The Plaintiffs alleged that apart from selling and offering counterfeit products on the Defendants website, the image of the founder of the Plaintiff and the names Christian and Louboutin were used as meta tags. Further, the Defendants’ website gave an impression that it was in some manner sponsored, affiliated and approved for sale of variety of luxury products bearing the mark Christian Louboutin and this resulted in infringement of trademark rights and violation of personality rights of Mr. Christian Louboutin.
On perusal of the pleadings the Hon’ble Court observed that no factual issues arose in the determination of the case as the Defendants had not disputed the proprietary rights of the Plaintiff over their brand Christian Louboutin. The only defence put forth by the Defendants was the safe harbour provision under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act, 2000 that they were mere intermediary who enabled booking of products from any of the 287 boutiques/sellers across the globe using their online platform. The Defendants contended that the products sold through their website was genuine, however, they were not providing after sales warranty or services.
The only aspect to be decided was whether the Defendants’ use of the Plaintiffs’ mark, logo was justified under Section 79 of the Information Act, 2000 or not.
The Hon’ble court perused the Defendants’ website and observed that customers were required to pay a membership fee in order to shop from the Defendants’ website and the said website also provided an authenticity guarantee to return twice the money if the products turned out to be fake or not of expected quality. Furthermore, in the terms and conditions, the Defendants claimed that they facilitated the purchase of original products and the prices of the products were maintained and changed at the discretion of the Defendants. Quality checks of the products were carried out by a third-party team who examined the precise details of the products that were shipped to the customers. The invoices generated were those of the website (defendant) company.
In order to determine whether an online marketplace or e-commerce website is an intermediary, the Hon’ble Court elaborately examined the nature of services (provided a detailed list of 26 possible services that could be performed by intermediary) that would fall within the ambit of service contemplated in the definition of intermediary. Accordingly, entities that performed tasks such as identification of the seller, providing transport for seller, employing delivery personnel for delivering the product, accepting cash for sale etc and the measures taken by the online platforms to ensure that unlawful acts were not committed by the sellers were taken into consideration for determining the role of the online marketplace. Considering the services played by the Defendant in the case, the Hon’ble Court was convinced that the Defendant exercised complete control over their sale of products and they were much more than just an intermediary.
The Hon’ble Court further noted that the e-commerce website and online marketplaces were required to operate with caution if they wished to enjoy the immunity provided to the intermediaries under Section 79 of the IT Act. When an e-commerce website is involved in or conducts its business in such a manner which would see presence of large number of elements (services and measures taken by sellers referred above), it could cross the line from being an intermediary to active participant. In such cases, online marketplace could be liable for infringement in view of its active participation. The conduct of intermediaries in failing to observe due diligence with respect to IPR could amount to conspiring or abetting, aiding or inducing unlawful conduct and may lose the exemption to which intermediaries are entitled. When an e-commerce company claims exemption under Section 79 of IT Act, it ought to ensure that it does not have active participation in the selling process. The presence of any elements which indicates active participation could deprive intermediaries of the exception.
Finally, the Hon’ble Court ascertained whether there was any falsification of Plaintiff’s trademark under Section 2(2)(c), 101 and 102 of the Trademarks Act, 1999. These provisions were being looked at to ascertain what constituted conspiring, abetting, aiding, or inducing, the commission of an unlawful act, in the context of trademarks rights. The Hon’ble Court concluded that the use of Plaintiffs’ mark in respect of genuine goods would not be infringement and in respect of counterfeit goods, it could constitute infringement. Thus, any online marketplace or e-commerce website which allows storing of counterfeit goods would be falsifying the mark.
In view of the above, the Hon’ble Court noted that the Defendant was not entitled to protection under Section 79 of the Information Technology Act. Further, the use of the Plaintiffs’ mark, the name and photograph of the founder without permission and the sale of products without ensuring genuineness constituted violation of the Plaintiffs rights. Pertaining to the contention of meta tagging, the Court held that Defendants’ use of the meta tagging would constitute infringement as upheld by the Delhi Court in another case (Kapil Wadhawa v. Samsung Electronics[v]).
In the above circumstance, the suit was decreed directing the Defendant to disclose the details of all its sellers, their addressee, contact details on the website, and prior to uploading a product bearing Plaintiffs’ mark, Defendant was required to obtain concurrence before offering for sale on its platform.
It is apparent that the legislative intent is to protect genuine intermediaries and it cannot be extended to those persons who are not intermediaries and are an active participants in the unlawful act.
Post Louboutin Case
The test laid down in Christian Louboutin case containing the detailed list of 26 possible tasks/services that could be performed by intermediaries were applied to various other cases such as Loreal v. Brandworld and Another[vi] and in Skull Candy Inc v. Shri Shyam Telecom and Others[vii] to ascertain the liability of intermediaries in online marketplace or e-commerce website.
In this regard, it is pertinent to note the case of Amway India Enterprises Private Limited v. 1Mg Technologies Private Limited and Another[viii] where a single bench of the Delhi High Court passed an order restraining numerous e-commerce platforms such as Amazon, flipkart, snapdeal etc from the sale of direct selling products without the consent of direct selling entities. This decision of the single bench was set aside by the Division bench of Delhi High Court on 31st January 2020 and with this again the position of law pertaining to the intermediary liabilities in trademark infringement cases remains unclear. However, it is observed from various intellectual property rights cases that courts have placed higher responsibility to take down the contents that infringes the IP rights and is titling towards making these e-commerce platforms more responsible for their content.
Now that the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines Amendment) Rules, 2018 framed to make social media platforms accountable for their contents is on the verge of being notified, it is apparent that internet intermediaries won’t be able to take shelter under the safe harbour protection of the IT Act, 2000 effortlessly. The new rules intend to tighten the noose by filtering out information that threaten public health or safety. The rules make it mandatory for intermediaries to provide information or assistance to government agencies within 72 hours of formal communication, enable tracing out of originator of information on its platform by deploying technology based automated tools for proactively identifying and removing or disabling public access to unlawful information and by removing access to unlawful content within 24 hours upon receiving a court order or being notified. It also requires intermediaries to incorporate a company if they have more than 5 lakh users in India and to have a permanent registered office in India as well as appoint a nodal person for contact with law enforcement.
From an IP perspective, the roles and responsibilities of intermediaries are likely to become more crucial in IPR infringement cases. The safe harbour protection must be granted to intermediaries only if they play the role of a facilitator. Since e-commerce has flourished like a green bay tree in the massive Indian market, the government is mooting the idea of having a separate regulatory body and a separate e-commerce law that provides for periodic audit, storage of data, consumer protection, export promotion and other provisions for promotion of e-commerce. The new law supposedly proposes to impose joint liability for counterfeit products on e-commerce entity as well as sellers. If approved, this would substantially address the trademark concerns and ensure fair competition.