The author of this post is Lydia Lundstedt, who is a Senior Lecturer at Stockholm University.
The United States has long differed from other countries by applying its trademark law (Lanham Act) to acts of infringement in foreign countries. Indeed, in the seminal case, Steele v. Bulova Watch Co., Inc., 344 U.S. 280 (1952), the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS or Court) upheld the application of the Lanham Act to acts of infringement in Mexico when a U.S. defendant took essential steps in the U.S. and caused consumer confusion in the U.S. and injured the right holder’s reputation in the U.S. and abroad. In Abitron Austria GmbH v. Hetronic International, decided on 29 June 2023, the Court put an end to this and held that § 1114(1)(a) and §1125(a)(1) (the infringement provisions) of the Lanham Act are not extraterritorial and apply only to infringing uses of protected marks in U.S. commerce.
Hetronic International, Inc (Hetronic), a U.S. company, manufactures radio remote controls for heavy-duty construction equipment. For many years Hetronic had a distributorship agreement with six foreign related parties (collectively Abitron) to distribute Hetronic’s products in Europe. The relationship soured when Abitron claimed ownership to much of Hetronic’s intellectual property rights and began manufacturing their own products—identical to Hetronic’s—and selling them using Hetronic’s trademarks. Abitron mostly sold its products in Europe, but it also made some sales to buyers in the U.S. Hetronic sued Abitron alleging infringement under the Lanham Act seeking worldwide damages and a global injunction. Abitron argued that the Act could not apply to its foreign sales. The district court rejected this argument and Hetronic was awarded approximately 96 million dollars in damages. Abitron was also enjoined from using Hetronic’s trademarks anywhere in the world. The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment, apart for narrowing the injunction to the countries in which Hetronic actually markets or sells its products. Abitron appealed to SCOTUS.
The Court applied its longstanding presumption against extraterritoriality, which holds that, unless the U.S. Congress has clearly instructed otherwise, U.S. legislation applies only within the U.S. territory. The Court recalled that this presumption serves to avoid international discord with foreign countries and recognizes that Congress generally legislates with domestic concerns in mind.
The Court’s modern extraterritoriality framework consists of two steps. First, the Court determines whether there is a clear indication that Congress intended to rebut the presumption with respect to the provision at issue. If the answer is no, step two determines whether the case involves a domestic (permissible) application of the provision or a foreign (impermissible) application of the provision. This involves identifying the statute’s focus and whether the object of the focus is located in the U.S.
While all the justices agreed that the answer at step one was no, the justices were almost evenly divided (5-4) at step two in how to draw the dividing line between a domestic and a foreign application of the Lanham Act’s infringement provisions.
The majority (opinion of the Court) held that the relevant criterion was the location of the conduct, that is, the infringing use of the mark must occur in U.S. commerce. They observed that the Court’s previous precedent, Steele v. Bulova Watch Co., which they called “narrow and fact-bound”, implicated both domestic conduct and a likelihood of domestic confusion so it was not helpful when determining which of the two criteria were relevant. Looking instead to the text and context of the infringement provisions, the majority explained that while the conduct must create a risk of confusion, confusion was not a separate requirement but a necessary characteristic of the infringing use. In addition, the majority reasoned that a conduct criterion was easy for the lower courts to apply and it was consistent with the territorial nature of trademarks enshrined in international law.
In contrast, the concurring justices argued that the relevant criterion was consumer confusion. They maintained that the focus of the statute was protection against consumer confusion in the U.S. In their view, an application of the Lanham Act to activities carried out abroad when there is a risk of confusion in the U.S. was a permissible domestic application.
The concurring justices argued that the Court’s precedents do not require a conduct only criterion. They argued that the focus of a statute can be parties and interests that Congress seeks to protect. In addition, they chided the majority for putting aside Steele v. Bulova Watch, which has guided the lower courts for more than 70 years. They also argued that the majority exaggerated the risk for international discord and that applying the Act when there was a likelihood of U.S. consumer confusion was consistent with the international trademark system.
The justices were unanimous in agreeing that the Court of Appeals’ judgment be vacated.
The majority opinion raises questions concerning the localization of infringing use. Indeed, its focus on conduct suggests that the location of the actor is relevant. That said, there was no dispute that the Lanham Act applied to the products that Abitron sold directly into the U.S. But what if the products were delivered abroad but marketed to U.S. buyers? Under European Union law, for instance, an infringing use of a trademark takes place in the EU if an offer for sale of a trade-marked product located in a third State is targeted at consumers in the EU (L’Oréal and others (C-324/09).
Now that the Lanham Act no longer applies to foreign infringing acts, right holders will need to rely on foreign trademarks. As many right holders will undoubtably seek to enforce foreign rights in U.S. courts, the question arises whether the U.S. courts will hear foreign trademark claims. Historically, U.S. courts have been reluctant to hear infringement claims based on foreign registered rights for lack of subject matter jurisdiction or forum non conveniens. It will be interesting to see how SCOTUS rules on these questions in the future.