A Canadian federal court recently released an opinion holding that meta tags, at least in some circumstances, are not entitled to copyright protection. Although the precedent is not binding in American courts, the well-reasoned opinion provides an excellent logical analysis on why meta tags may or may not be afforded copyright protection.
In Red Label Vacations Inc. v. 411 Travel Buys Limited, the plaintiff travel business implemented meta tags including its registered trademarks: “redtag.ca,” “redtag.ca vacations,” and “Shop. Compare. Payless!! Guaranteed.” The defendant is a competing travel business in the Canadian market. In 2009, Red Tag experienced a drop in sales and noticed that search engine results for its company were returning results for its competitor, 411 Travel Buys. Upon further inspection, Red Label found that 411 had apparently copied its metadata including content, ordering, and misspellings. Red Label informed 411 of the violation and 411, being Canadian, immediately removed the content. Nevertheless, Red Label brought suit for lost profits during the period it was active.
In analyzing the duplicated meta tags, the court concluded that the tags were substantially derived from a list of Google keywords which were incorporated into phrases describing travel. The court held that there was little evidence of any degree of skill, judgment, or creativity in creating the meta tags at issue in the case. The court noted that there may be circumstances in which meta tags are so creative and original so as to qualify for copyright protection, but they were not present here.
The court further found that there was not substantial copying when viewing the website as a whole. Defendant 411 copied 48 pages out of approximately 180,000 on Red Tag’s website. The court considered substantial similarity between the original work and the allegedly infringing work when viewed as a whole, and did not find that a substantial reproduction had occurred.
Even though 411 used Red Tag’s trademarks in its meta tags, the court held that no trademark violation had occurred because the meta tags were not visible to the site’s visitors, but were rather used by search engines. The court found that even if a patron had reached the 411 site by searching for Red Tag terms, once visitors arrived at the website they would have no doubt that they were at the site of 411. Notably, the Canadian court identified a substantial difference between its law and trademark law in the US. In the US, a court may find a trademark violation occurred where trademark use causes “initial interest confusion” where a patron searching for one company diverts their business to what the patron realizes is a different company offering a similar product or service. Regardless, the Canadian court indicated that it wouldn’t find a trademark violation even under the initial interest confusion test, because when search engines use meta tags they return a list of links that customers may choose from at will, rather than directing the viewer to a particular competitor.
Despite the Canadian court’s thoughtful and in-depth analysis, in the six years since the events of the case meta tags have increasingly become a relic of the past as search engines increasingly use their own algorithms to determine search results. However this is still a claim that many plaintiffs include when throwing in the kitchen sink in a trademark case, and it would not be surprising to see US courts cite to the reasoning of our neighbors to the north in future decisions.