Last year, Williams-Sonoma filed a bombshell trademark infringement case against Amazon, alleging that the e-commerce leviathan had established an unauthorized “store” and copied several of its designs. Now we have the first significant decision the case: A California judge has denied Amazon’s request to dismiss the suit. Williams-Sonoma, it seems, will get its day in court.
The presiding judge, Elizabeth Laporte, focused primarily on the allegations that Amazon had used Williams-Sonoma branding to create the impression of a partnership between the two companies. Calling the decision a “close call,” she wrote: “On balance the allegations raise the plausible inference that Amazon is not merely reselling Williams-Sonoma products, but is instead cultivating the incorrect impression that these sales on Amazon.com are authorized by Williams-Sonoma and that a reasonably prudent consumer is likely to be confused.”
The decision, however, is far from the final word on the subject. As the case moves through the legal system, Williams-Sonoma will be required to prove that its intellectual property has been infringed upon. This early decision, however, is a sign that the furniture retailer has a case. “At a minimum,” Laporte wrote, “Williams-Sonoma has sufficiently alleged that Amazon acted with an ‘aura of indifference’ to its rights.”
This litigation is part of an ongoing atmosphere of tension between Amazon and other mega-retailers. Ultimately, Amazon often serves as both partner and competitor, which can put these companies in a bind. If a brand’s product isn’t on Amazon, it likely won’t sell as well, but if it is, then Amazon can collect data on the product and create its own cheaper versions.
“The complaint underscores Amazon’s power as a product search engine, which can glean insights about products customers want that it doesn’t sell based on the searches of hundreds of millions of customers,” Spencer Soper wrote in a Seattle Times article on the original lawsuit. “It can offer similar products and promote them on its site, and even advertise them on Google using the same keywords shoppers use on Amazon. Amazon’s private-label products pressure brands to sell and advertise their goods on the web store, lest their customers start buying similar products Amazon is making.” With more than 120 brands, some directly associated with Amazon’s name and others private label, the e-commerce giant’s rapid expansion and monopolizing moves are drawing widespread scrutiny and censure from critics who argue that Amazon exploits consumers and bullies competitor brands.