The ruling, by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, upholds a lower-court ruling allowing 1981 Playmate of the Year Terri Welles to describe herself as a "playmate" and use the term "playboy."
The court ruled that Welles' use of the terms did not violate Playboy's trademarks, as the adult magazine publisher had argued.
"The metatags use only so much of the marks as reasonably necessary, and nothing is done in conjunction with them to suggest sponsorship or endorsement by the trademark holder," the judges wrote.
Metatags are keywords used to index Web sites. The judges said it is not practical to expect Welles to use phrases such as "the nude model selected by Mr. (Hugh) Hefner's organization," instead of "playmate," to describe herself.
"Forcing Welles and others to use absurd turns of phrase in their metatags, such as those necessary to identify Welles, would be particularly damaging in the Internet search context," stated the ruling, which was issued Friday. "Searchers would have a much more difficult time locating relevant Web sites if they could do so only by correctly guessing the long phrases necessary to substitute for trademarks."
The Welles case was first filed in 1998, but the issue of trademarks in search terms is resurfacing in another form, as more search sites turn to a pay-for-play business plan. Such sites rank search results based on how much a company pays for placement.
Last week, Mark Nutritionals, maker of Body Solutions, sued four pay-for-play sites, claiming they allowed rivals to illegally piggyback on the company's trademarked diet products.