Caleb Holtz, MJLST Staffer
Two years ago, my girlfriend gave me an Amazon receipt showing she had ordered a really cool jersey from the German national soccer team. I was very excited. Not only had my girlfriend purchased for me a great jersey, but she had also found a reputable, accessible retailer for buying soccer jerseys in the United States. My excitement soon faded however. The jersey was delayed and delayed, and eventually Amazon cancelled the order and issued a refund. It turned out the jersey was sold by a popular counterfeiter hosting products on Amazon’s site through Amazon’s popular “Fulfilled by Amazon” program. Unaware that this existed prior to this experience, my girlfriend had been lured into a false sense of security that she was purchasing something from the world’s largest retailer, rather than from an obscure counterfeiter.
As it turns out, we were far from the only consumers to fall prey to counterfeit goods being sold on Amazon. Per a recent Engadget article discussing the issue, “the Counterfeit Report, an advocacy group that works with brands to detect fake goods, has found around 58,000 counterfeit products on Amazon since May 2016.” Amazon, recognizing that customers are more likely to trust counterfeits sold on its website, set a goal in 2017 to fight counterfeits.
Amazon is hardly the only retailer dealing with counterfeiting issues. The International Trademark Association said that trade in pirated and counterfeited intellectual property accounted for $461 billion in 2013. The Chinese retail giant Alibaba was at one point put on a U.S. anti-counterfeiting blacklist because of the large quantities of counterfeit goods sold on its website. Ebay, Walmart, Sears, and Newegg have also faced allegations of hosting counterfeited products. Importantly, however, for each of the retailers, there are few legal repercussions for merely hosting counterfeit goods. With the exception of a 2008 case against eBay, the aforementioned retailers have largely avoided being found liable for the counterfeit products they aided in selling.
Amazon provides the best blueprint for avoiding liability. Amazon has avoided liability by arguing that while it may host sellers, it is not a seller itself. Fortunately for Amazon, the Federal Circuit agrees that it is not a seller of the counterfeit goods, and therefore cannot be liable for copyright infringement, even if Amazon stored and shipped the products from its own warehouses. Milo & Gabby LLC v. Amazon.com, Inc., 693 Fed.Appx. 879 (Fed. Cir. 2017). As it is merely a marketplace, Amazon can continue avoiding liability so long as it appropriately responds to complaints of intellectual property infringement.
It will be interesting to see how the parties involved handle this counterfeiting issue going forward, especially as the government anticipates counterfeiting business to continue to grow. Online retailers are taking proactive steps to limit the sale of counterfeits on their websites, although those have been far from effective. Some have suggested artificial intelligence holds the key to solving this problem. Wronged intellectual property owners have not given up on forcing a remedy through the judicial system, as can be seen by the lawsuit filed by Daimler against Amazon recently. Finally, some, such as the judge in the Milo & Gabby case, see a legislative approach such as closing the marketplace loophole that allows online retailers to skate by relatively untouched. Unfortunately for consumers, it does not appear like there is an imminent solution to this problem, so it is best to be aware of how to avoid accidentally purchasing a counterfeit.