Are Trademarks a Data Security Alternative to Sad, Weak, Outdated Copyrights?

If you’ve been on the web for a while, you’ve seen an advertisement that looks like the user interface of the website you’re viewing- or maybe an ad that has a false close button, and clicking it just navigates you to the advertised page. These are blatant ways to trick consumers into taking actions they don’t want to take. Sometimes, these inadvertent actions can create security vulnerabilities such as malware.

Despite all of the focus on applying copyright law to the internet, I wonder if there are hints of trademark and trade dress protections that could become relevant to data privacy issues. I will cautiously, even timidly, explore a few of those possibilities (which several others have explored over the last few years).

I. Trademarks: When it Comes to Data Privacy, Accept No Imitations.

Trademarks have a simple purpose: to let consumers know the origin of a good or service. Trademarks are often a word, phrase, or image (logo), but can also be a sound or smell (on rare occasion, it can get a bit more abstract ).

A major category of trademark infringement is counterfeiting. That $20 “ROLEX” watch from the guy in the alley? That’s a counterfeit (sorry), and one of the legal issues involved in the sale of that watch is the use of a trademark without the legal right to use it. There haven’t been a lot of counterfeit websites on the internet, especially since SSL and other authentication processes got better. However, there are plenty of imitation apps and games. One of the reasons such apps and games fail and are quickly removed from distribution is that they infringe trademarks.

However, some countries do not have the same standards regarding trademark (or copyright) enforcement. Consider an imitation League of Legends game, lampooned here. At the end of the video, the player says “Oh, and it’s also a virus,” as his security software reports malware after playing the game. This humorously underscores the point that many infringing* products pose a security and privacy threat. Using trademark law to limit the proliferation of readily accessible, easily confused programs is a valuable practice in maintaining computer security for consumers.

II. Trade Dress: No One Really “Owns” That Icon… But You Know Who Owns That Icon.

Trade dress is a sort of sub-category of trademarks. It’s rarely talked about or used, but it can be thought of as the totality of design and aesthetics that go into a product, place, or service that make consumers identify the source. Color palette, patterns, shapes, and other factors go into the evaluation of trade dress. Crucially (and perhaps fatally), elements of a trade dress must be considered “non-functional.”  For example, the major case in trade dress concerned a Tex-Mex restaurant that used the same colors and layout of another Tex-Mex restaurant.

Here’s the controversial idea I think deserves consideration: Could misleading, camouflaged web content be considered an infringement of trade dress? (Think of the kinds of ads that make you believe you’re not clicking on an ad, but rather some piece of actual content on the site- especially regarding navigation buttons that match the navigation icons of the site.)

The reason I look to trade dress for a solution is that icons and interfaces, even stylized ones, are not subject to trademark, copyright, or patent protections. Furthermore, websites are increasingly treated as the digital equivalent of stores and offices of businesses- so much so that designs and layouts can come to be the trade dress of that business. Thus, there is a gap in the legal protection of user interfaces, and a need to cover that gap.

(Treating websites as subject to trade dress might have the added benefit of discouraging UX and UI designers from fiddling with the location and arrangement of navigation tools every other month just to justify their paycheck. And that’s the kind of change this world really needs.)

Conclusion: Trademark Protection is Already Working, Trade Dress is Still Vague and Untested

Trademark law is already quietly making the digital ecosystem a little bit safer by eschewing threatening knock-off games and apps. I think there’s a case to be made for applying trade dress to websites and UIs, but it would be a novel application and courts may be hesitant to apply the law so creatively.

 

* “300 Heroes” Infringes both copyrights and trademarks, but it’s the funniest example.