As businesses invent new ways to protect their names and trademarks on the Internet, unscrupulous competitors invent new ways of exploiting these. "Cyber-squatting" is a well-known phenomenon but the misuse of metatags is a relatively new and invisible threat to those wishing to protect their rights and reputation on the Web.
Metatags are essentially words hidden within the HTML code of a Web site which are used by search engines to categorise the content of Web sites. The problem arises when Webmasters, who are free to decide what words they include in their metatags, abuse this system. Webmasters might for example attempt to engineer artificially high hits on their Web sites by including in their metatags commonly searched-for words regardless of the content of their Web site. In the commercial sphere a commonly emerging tactic is the insertion of competitors' names and trademarks in metatags to draw users away from that competitor's Web site.
The position under English law has now been clarified by a case brought in the High Court by Road Tech Computer Systems against its competitor Mandata.
Mandata used Road Tech's trademark in its metatags and the court found that this constituted both an infringement of Road Tech's trademark and also the common law offence of passing off. In a summary judgment the court awarded Road Tech £80,000 in costs and damages.
This latest development highlights the need for businesses to review their use of metatags. Businesses should check that they are not being exploited by others by using search engines to check for unauthorised use of their name or trademarks.
However it is equally important that businesses ensure they are not unwittingly infringing others' trademarks by including them in their own metatags.
This is especially relevant to businesses who use external developers to author their Web sites.
This was first published in July 2000