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EU adviser backs Google in trademark suit

European advocate general comes out in favor of Google over legal issue of selling advertisers keywords that match trademarks such as those of Louis Vuitton.

An adviser to the European Union has sided with Google in the company's battle with Louis Vuitton and others over alleged trademark infringement.

The search giant is fighting a lawsuit in the European courts against several companies that claim Google is infringing on their trademarks by allowing advertisers to buy keywords that match those trademarks.

Led by LVMH's Louis Vuitton, the companies are upset that makers of imitation items can buy those keywords through Google's AdWords, allowing their products to pop up in searches alongside the genuine article.

But in a statement released by the European Court of Justice on Tuesday, adviser and Advocate General Poiares Maduro said that "Google has not committed a trademark infringement by allowing advertisers to select, in AdWords, keywords corresponding to trademarks."

Maduro's opinion is that the use of trademarks is limited to the selection of keywords internal to AdWords and as such only concerns Google and its advertisers. When selecting keywords, no product or service is being sold to the public, therefore, neither Google nor its advertisers are infringing on any trademarks, said Maduro.

In response to the concern that makers of imitation products can grab certain keywords, the Advocate General put the responsibility firmly in the hands of consumers.

"The mere display of relevant sites in response to keywords is not enough to establish a risk of confusion on the part of consumers as to the origin of goods or services," said Maduro in the statement. "Internet users are aware that not only the site of the trademark owner will appear as a result of a search in Google's search engine... These users will only make an assessment as to the origin of the goods or services advertised on the basis of the content of the ad and by visiting the advertised sites."

Maduro's opinion doesn't leave Google totally in the clear. Maduro said the company might be liable if found to feature content in AdWords that infringes on a trademark. But even in this case, the trademark owner would have to cite specific instances of damage to their trademarks in order to hold Google accountable.

Trademark issues over AdWords have plagued Google for years, both in the U.S. and especially in Europe where Louis Vuitton and others have taken the company in and out of court. French justice has generally found in favor of the trademark owners, usually ordering Google to pay a fine. But the issue has never been definitively settled.

In response to the latest round of legal squabbles, the French court has asked the European Court of Justice to now settle the issue.

The Advocate General's statement is not binding on the court, but the opinion is strongly considered. The court is now reviewing the case and will render its judgment at a later date.