Charlie Abrahams

Charlie Abrahams of online brand protection specialist MarkMonitor explains how trademark owners can fight back against infringement

What does MarkMonitor offer to protect brands from online infringement?

We use a number of technologies that search the internet looking for infringements that relate to a brand or term. We have one solution that crawls the deep web and finds all sites that are infringing a brand’s trademarks, including ones that are not necessarily indexed.

We are also able to work out which domains belong to which people or organisations. Often, in large-scale counterfeiting schemes, we find that one individual or organisation owns a high percentage of the infringing domain names. We found 800 domains associated with one counterfeiting group in the Belstaff case.

In such instances, the brand owner can proceed with litigation against the defendants. In cases where litigation occurs, the brand owner normally takes ownership of the infringing domains and the associated assets awarded, including payment accounts. However, generally, the brand owner is more concerned with taking the domains out of circulation so they cannot be used for counterfeiting.

How does your crawling tech work?

We have sophisticated technology that crawls the whole web. It works by searching for specific terms in domains, web pages, marketplaces, social media platforms, app stores or the meta tags of sites. We crawl on a daily basis, but for a crawl of the deep web, looking for unindexed sites, it could take an entire month.

How real of a threat is this type of infringement for brand owners?

It is a big issue in any industry where products are for sale. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, there are health and safety concerns when counterfeit products are sold on the internet under a brand name, because a consumer cannot always tell the difference between real and fake. Internet users cannot see or touch a product before they buy it and they do not know whether they are buying a genuine product or not.

Brands that provide services, such as travel companies or insurance providers, on the other hand, have a different issue. For them it’s about traffic theft. They are largely dependent on the internet for business and if someone is trying to impersonate a brand, it can be very costly, in terms of lost traffic and the money that must be spent on brand marketing. The likes of search terms and domains all cost money to acquire and competition from illegal impersonators drives those costs up dramatically.

Who is responsible for counterfeit and potentially harmful goods in such instances?

Keeping with the pharma example, drug manufacturers are not responsible for infringers but definitely suffer as a result of their actions. The primary issue a decade ago was penetration of the legitimate supply chain with fake products.

Today, brands are more concerned with the internet, especially in North America and Western Europe, where a large volume of product in the pharmaceutical space is purchased over the internet.

Brands would traditionally focus on counterfeit goods at the point of entry into a country, training customs officers to look for suspicious containers. The challenge now is that there are millions of small packages that are individually shipped to consumers, meaning it is much more difficult to enforce in a traditional sense. Potentially infringing goods are no longer entering the country in large containers. They are sold individually to consumers directly, so it is more difficult to intercept when products are distributed in this way because they are going from a site to individual consumers.

Does the internet give operators a platform to engage in counterfeit activities?

The internet cannot be blamed because it is a useful platform through which brand owners enjoy global access to consumers and consumers are provided with incredible choice.

The main challenge with the internet is volume. In our most recent case study around Belstaff, we found 3,000 infringing websites. For some of the largest global brand owners, we have found 10,000 to 20,000 infringing sites—the numbers are astronomic.

The level of immediacy and difficulty in identifying who is selling the goods makes the internet risky for both internet users and brand owners. Consequently, they have to be much more vigilant in the terms of their transactions on the internet.

If internet users see something that looks too good to be true, it probably is. Brand owners also need to make certain there aren’t others out there trying to impersonate them.

The platforms where this takes place are never going to police themselves—only the brand owner can say with any certainty that the goods being sold are genuine. Brand owners continue to have that responsibility.

Is there a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for brand owners?

Brand owners that we are engaged with are making a big impact. They can change their situation from being heavily infringed to having virtually nothing out there that is infringing.

The brand owners that take this seriously can make a significant difference to infringement when they pay attention to infringing activity and work with organisations that focus on remedying this issue.

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