Retail Therapy for Brand Owners: Counterfeit Goods & Director Liability


The U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office recently announced that the value of counterfeit and pirated products seized at the border had increased in 2008, up to $113.2 million. Of course, that’s just the stuff they seized, and countless other counterfeits and knock-offs are flowing in.

In Canada, the recent case of Louis Vuitton Malletier SA v. 486353 B.C. Ltd. 2008 BCSC 799, illustrates how one brand owner tackled the problem. Louis Vuitton’s investigations showed that counterfeit Louis Vuitton handbags were being sold at various retails locations throughout suburban Vancouver, all operated by one proprietor. The lawyers pounced, seized the counterfeit evidence, but avoided litigation by entering into a settlement agreement with the proprietors in 2006. This included a slap-on-the-wrist payment of $6,000 to Louis Vuitton. After monitoring the stores throughout 2007, it became apparent that the settlement agreement had been breached, and Louis Vuitton brought a second lawsuit, this time pushing it through trial to arrive at a significant damage award of close to $1 million, when all the trade-mark and copyright damages were added up. The court also made it clear that the directors would not avoid personal liability:

“A corporation cannot be used to shield an officer or director or a principal employee, when that individual’s actions amount to a deliberate, willful and knowing pursuit of a course of conduct which was likely to constitute infringement or at least where those actions reflect an indifference to the risk of an infringement.”

The battle against counterfeits has spilled over into eBay where various luxury-goods brand owners such as Tiffany have complained that eBay had become a clearing house for counterfeits. A US judge recently decided that eBay was not liable for the providing the means of selling counterfeit goods, and the key to eBay’s win was its set of policies and procedures to respond to complaints of trade-mark infringement.

The take-home message is that brand owners must police their own brands both online and offline. Online venues such as eBay cannot be pressed into service as trademark watchdogs – though they must be prepared to react if notified of an infringement. Just as brand owners must be prepared to investigate and act decisively in maintaining their brand’s integrity.
Calgary – 22:00 MST

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