Blown To Bits

Is Barring Trademarks from Ads a Kind of Censorship?

Wednesday, December 17th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

The ever-provocative Chris Soghoian raises that interesting question. Here’s the background.

If you buy an Adwords ad from Google — those are the text ads that appear to the right of the organic search results on the main search page — you’re not allowed to mention any trademark you don’t control. So Coca-Cola can’t buy an ad that says “Coke is better than Pepsi.” It can’t even buy an ad that says “Coke begins with C and Pespi begins with P,” even though that is plainly true as a matter of fact, not allegation or opinion.

Now the problem is that if you’re an activist or have a political cause that involves some corporate entity, it’s hard to advertise yourself if you can’t mention your adversary. So a group favoring the return of ROTC to Harvard couldn’t buy an ad that read, “Bring ROTC back to Harvard,” since “Harvard” is a trademark of the university. In practice, Google waits for the trademark holder to complain, and then takes the ad down, no further questions asked. (Actually, all ads — Harvard would just have to send one email and all ads mentioning Harvard would be taken down.)

There is nothing unlawful about Google’s policy — in fact in the unpredictable world of trademark litigation, it may be exactly what Google’s lawyers want, so that the company stays out of the middle of disputes in which it has no real stake.

But in a world where more and more information reaches the public through Google’s window, it’s a serious question whether this policy will impoverish the public discourse. In Chris’s case, he was unable to keep up an ad stating the true fact that AT&T had contributed to a particular political candidate, because AT&T — not the candidate — complained to Google. Should we care that Chris has lost this inexpensive, effective means to get his message out? Will this contribute to the tyranny of the majority, as we call it in Chapter 4 of Blown to Bits?

2 Responses to “Is Barring Trademarks from Ads a Kind of Censorship?”

  1. Hilary Says:

    I suspect this policy could be problematic where the mark in question is generic or descriptive and thus not a valid trademark. Technically, a trademark cannot be generic or descriptive, however, this usually becomes evident / enforced when the individual in question is unable to register the trademark (e.g. the US Patent and Trademark Office rejects their application), or tries to sue another individual for infringement and loses in court. Sometimes individuals attempt to use generic or descriptive terms as trademarks as a defensive/anti-competitive move. For example, I could claim that I own the trademark “aspirin” for my acetylsalicylic acid-based pain killer. The USPTO would reject any of my attempts to register this trademark, and if I sued another company for marketing their acetylsalicylic acid-based pain killer as “aspirin”, I would undoubtedly lose the case. However, it seems that if Google does not examine the validity of the trademark claims, I would potentially be able to prevent any of my competitors from advertising their acetylsalicylic acid-based pain killer as “aspirin” on Google.

  2. Harry Lewis Says:

    Very much the same problem as the use of the DMCA takedown process to stifle criticism.