Court declines jurisdiction over websites selling look-alike chairs

Netherlands

The District Court of the Hague, in summary proceedings, has ruled that it has no jurisdiction to hear a case brought by Vitra, a furniture design company that sells the well-known chairs designed by Charles and Ray Eames. The case was made against 16 defendants located in Ireland, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom, who allegedly sold copies of the Eames chairs through their websites.

Vitra asked the court to place an injunction on the defendants, claiming that the chairs they were offering for sale infringed its rights in the trademark EAMES as well as its copyright. The main defence of the defendants (of whom only three appeared in court) was based on the court's lack of jurisdiction. Vitra had argued that the court had jurisdiction since the websites were accessible from Benelux. However, the court ruled that this was insufficient for it to assume jurisdiction. Vitra had not provided evidence that the offers made on the websites of the defendants who appeared in court were, by word and meaning, unmistakably (also) aimed at users in Benelux. Relevant factors to determine this include:

  • the top-level domain in which the website was located (eg, whether this was '.com', '.it', '.nl' or '.uk');

  • the language used on the website; and

  • any information on the website aimed at customers from Benelux (eg, relating to delivery of the chairs).

None of these factors had apparently been addressed by Vitra in its writ of summons or the underlying documentation. The court also dismissed Vitra's claims against the defendants who did not appear on the basis that Vitra had insufficiently explained the grounds for its claims in the writ of summons - apparently it had failed to identify either the websites or the precise offers for sale.

This reasoning is in line with general Dutch case law on the subject. In the pre-Internet era the Supreme Court in 1964 decided in Lexington that a trademark used in a US magazine, circulated in the Netherlands, could only be considered to infringe Dutch trademark rights (and thereby establish jurisdiction for a Dutch court) if the advertisement was specifically designed to generate sales in the Netherlands.

Although Vitra has lost the case, this may not be the end of the story. One of the defendants appears to operate a website in the top-level domain '.com', where copies of Eames chairs are offered for sale. There is no apparent restriction against users from the Netherlands ordering the chairs from the website. If Vitra can demonstrate that it has placed an order from the Netherlands, that this was accepted and, in particular, that the chairs were then subsequently delivered to an address in the Netherlands, this would certainly be sufficient for a Dutch court to assume jurisdiction and rule on the issue of infringement. (For a discussion of a case that highlights this point, see Block on '.com' domain name may curb online infringement.)

Wolter Wefers Bettink, Houthoff Buruma, Amsterdam

Get unlimited access to all WTR content