back to article How a Cali court ruling could force a complete rethink of search results

We could be looking at a complete overhaul of search results thanks to a case involving Amazon and a high-end watch manufacturer. Earlier this week, California's Ninth Circuit reversed a district court decision that the online retail giant does not infringe the trademark of Multi Time Machine (MTM) when it displays competitors …

  1. bazza Silver badge


    I'm increasingly irritated by search engines returning results I'm not interested in, and Amazon are just another example. If a search returns no result, I want to know that instead of having to plough through the vast swathes of useless results just in case the one I want is actually in there somewhere on the 10th page.

    When I use + and quotes on a Google search string, I just wish they'd actually pay attention to that. Instead more often than not they they present a bunch of pages that actually do not feature the words I've supposedly specified as being compulsory in the search. Not useful at all. I long for the days of Alta Vista which simply did nothing more than straight string matching, not some hocus pocus bullshit algorithm whose only purpose is to encourage me to view pages that I already know I don't want to see.

    Search engines have become the lazy answer to poor organisation and maintenance of data, and there's plenty of services out there like Google, Amazon, Bing, etc. that exploit that laziness as an excuse for pushing adverts. Microsoft's help is appalling these days, where pressing the help button on an in focus dialog box generally fails to being up the help page for that box.

    1. Anonymous Coward

      Re: Irritating

      Yes, and if I put - on a keyword, I DO NOT WANT TO SEE IT!

    2. noem

      Re: Irritating

      Considering the case concerns amazon, which is by definition a store. Which outcome would you rather have when going to the your local supermarket?

      You: Hi, do you have any Grey Goose?

      Employee: Nope!


      You: Hi, do you have any Grey Goose?

      Employee: We have a wide selection of other vodkas and since they all taste about the same why not give X brand a try. I've been told by customers that X brand is the best and is less expensive.

      I hate when comments aren't exactly relevant to the post being discussed. When I jump into the comments I expect it to be rant free and on topic! It's these lazy commentators that fill up the comments with pages of off topic rants, I just wish they'd actually pay attention to the thing I came to discuss.

      Seriously though, the issue at hand is whether search usability trumps copyright. In your case of altavista accuracy vs google's googol of results, the answer is much the same as the market spoke in 2013.

      1. DiViDeD

        Re: Irritating

        "When I jump into the comments I expect it to be rant free and on topic"

        You're new around here, aren't you?

      2. big_D Silver badge

        Re: Irritating

        @noem, I'd rather see "We couldn't find any products matching your search criteria. Here are some similar products."

        That would be fine, for me. I then know that there is no point searching through 40 pages of results, because what I want isn't there, or I can look at the alternatives, knowing that they are the only option.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Irritating

          This opens up a whole new can of worms. How is the 'alternative' product 'similar'. Does it look like it ? Does it look different but is it made of the same components ? Does it have similar functionality ?

          I think you'd be back to square one.

          1. Graham Marsden

            Re: Irritating

            The question is whether someone is *specifically* looking for an MTM watch or something that *looks* like a military design watch and there's really no way to tell that.

            If there are lots of watches of similar design and someone has seen a friend/ review/ advert for MTM they might go into a shop and say "I want one of those MTM watches" but then find the price is too high or they don't quite like the look of what they're offered or, of course, that the shop doesn't stock that particular brand at which point the assistant can say "We also have these..."

            As such, *provided* Amazon or whoever says something like "We cannot find any results that match what you're looking for, but we have these ones instead..." I would not have a problem.

            If, on the other hand, they say "Here's what you're looking for" and it's necessary to waste time trying to refine your search enquiry or look through several pages to discover that they don't actually have that particular brand, then that would be a problem.

      3. bazza Silver badge

        Re: Irritating

        Your counter-example is flawed and stupid.

        Which outcome would you rather have when going to the your local supermarket?

        You: Hi, do you have any Grey Goose?

        Employee: Nope!

        Who would ask for a specific brand if they actually wanted a generic thing? If one is interested in vodka generally, ask for goddamned vodka. Being told that a shop has vodka and refusing to confirm or deny the availability of a specifically requested brand is not helpful at all and a waste of time. And possibly illegal.

        I hate when comments aren't exactly relevant to the post being discussed. When I jump into the comments I expect it to be rant free and on topic! It's these lazy commentators that fill up the comments with pages of off topic rants, I just wish they'd actually pay attention to the thing I came to discuss.

        Did you read that before you posted it, or are you just being ironic?

        1. noem

          Re: Irritating


          I've never said which way I actually preferred to have search operate, I akin search to a tool. You use the correct one for the job, Google will give you a ton of results, but something might be relevant. Other search engines might thin the results too much. I generally pick the tool that fits the job or try them all until I find what works. Rather than complaining my hammer does not work well with screws, I use a screwdriver (or a butter knife if I can't find the screwdriver). Some tools are better at certain tasks than others, the one size fits all is rarely that (the hammer screwdriver hybrid is less than ideal). Failing to use the proper tool is user error, ignorance or arrogance. Continuing to use the improper tool for the same task knowing full well it does not work and expecting a different result is insanity.

          User error: "I just type in the search bar and it returns results from the whole interweb, right?"

          Ignorance: "I can use something other than Bing?!?"

          Arrogance: "Google is the best why would I use anything else!"

          Insanity: "The last time bob used a fork in the electrical socket to get better AM reception, it shocked him bad, I was there. You're sure it won't do the same to me"

          You can save yourself from google's shoddy work, by wait for it...using something else or continue to complain that your arm is numb and you don't feel so well, while carrying on with the fork.

          The second part where I talk about comments not being especially relevant was meant to illustrate the irony of your own post, there's a pretty specific topic that that the legal case concerns and you've posted something that is not entirely relevant to the legal issue. You are exactly the same as the search engine you despise, you've created a new piece of data (ie. returned an irrelevant result) for users to wade through in order to get at the actual subject. Given that the comments should center on the merits of either side and the consequences of such a ruling on search usability/marketplace competition vs brand dilution/trademark. Given I've had to explain myself I've added another piece of irrelevancy to the comments section and ruined the joke to boot, this comment is in itself ironic!

      4. FelixReg

        Re: Grey Goose

        Up-vote for the Grey Goose scenario, noem,

        Except a slight change should be made to better match the case at issue: It's not "which outcome would you rather...". It's: Is the second employee's response illegal?

        Those who argue against Amazon in this case are saying, "In response to the customer's 'gray geece' query, the clerk (who is not human and is therefore expected to never make a mistake) must either stay silent or tell the customer, 'Our store does not have any Gay Juice'."

        The article doesn't tell whether the Amazon search engine in this case had any knowledge of a product and/or brand name. I would expect not.

        1. This post has been deleted by its author

      5. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Irritating

        Customer: Do you have pepsi?

        Employee: No but we have coke.

        Customer: I don't care, I asked for pepsi (goes to next shop).

        If the user query was specifically for MTM and the MTM keyword was not found any results should show that the query returned no results. If I type in "TMT" instead of "MTM" I get "Your search "tmt special ops watch" did not match any products." then I get a list with TMT crossed out (ie the search for "special ops watch" without the "TMT")

      6. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

        Re: Irritating

        When I jump into the comments I expect it to be rant free and on topic!

        You may be interested to this introduction to The Register's comment section in .gif form. It may explain some things to you.

    3. Mi Tasol

      Re: Irritating

      You got it in one.

      I now use Yahoo Advanced Web Search. Takes a few seconds longer to fill in but does not respond with 50 pages of irrelevant crap so much much faster in the long run

      Second choice is DuckDuckGo

      Last two choices are Bing and Google

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Irritating

      "When I use + and quotes on a Google search string, I just wish they'd actually pay attention to that. "

      YouTube has a similar problem in being apparently unable to define a search term exactly. This is annoying when "petits chanteurs de France" comes back with any choir's name containing "petits chanteurs de" - and none of the visible results are the expected choir.

      It had been assumed that enclosing a phrase in double-quotes would mean "exactly this". Apparently that is treated as if each word is a separate term in any combination - even without some words.

      However - yesterday a result did come back with only one video and it was the exact choir match. That has never happened before.

      The format that seemed to do it was "these-words-in-this-order" viz hyphen separators which usually mean "words in this order" - and all enclosed in quotes. More experimentation is needed today to see if this was a fluke - or whether the search really can now be made to give only the results that are relevant.

    5. anoco

      Re: Irritating

      Before I forget, the + symbol on google now means google+ results. We should sue them for misleading us!! If you really want a precise search, use Google Verbatin. An option under the "search tools" box. Or bookmark this link for the same results.

      Now about my Grey Goose problem... If the said employee pointed the customer to a bottle of Absolut, would Grey Goose have a legal standing against the market? Or would it be up to the customer to stop asking questions to that person, or better, stop shopping at that market altogether?

      Even if the customer is stupid enough to buy a different brand (and I'm sure they are), I think this is a problem in between the customer and Amazon. Maybe even in between MTM and the customer because they are not available at Amazon. But not in between MTM and Amazon.

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Irritating

      I think you're misremembering Alta Vista's search capabilities:

      Query: World War II Battles


      shop for World War II Battles at Walmart

      best price on World War II Battles at Target

      looking for World War II Battles at Sears


      10 pages of nothing but cut and paste queries that appear verbatim in the supposed answer

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Are you aware...

    ...that Cali is a city in Colombia? Your article distinctly seems to refer to California, a state in the US.

    And btw, the video comes up with a "content restriction" saying I'm not allowed to see it from my current location. Not that I care, mind.

    1. IvyKing

      Re: Are you aware...

      "Cali" is not a common abbreviation for California, the most common is the USPS approved "CA", followed by "Calif". "Cal" is another common shortening of the name, though it is more used for college and university names, e.g. Cal (UC Berkeley - Go Bears), Southern Cal (USC), Cal Tech, Cal Poly, Cal State $city_name, Cal Lu, etc.

      In addition, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals covers the Western US in addition to the Golden State.

      1. choleric

        Re: Are you aware...

        It's an El Reg-ism resulting from a penchant for headlines referencing a certain Mary Poppins tune. In this case an example might be:

        "Super-Cali loves big watches; MTM victorious"

        None of the standard abbreviations for California work nearly as well.

        1. Graham Marsden
          Thumb Up

          @choleric - Re: Are you aware...

          Are you after a job as an El Reg sub-editor?

          1. choleric

            @Graham Marsden

            Thank you for your words. However, I only came up with that meagre line after a leisurely breakfast enjoying a bowl of Frosties. I don't think there are enough hours in the day, nor enough Frosties in the world to let me compete with the quality and quantity of headlines produced by the laser-focused, turbocharged sub-editing fiends that El Reg currently employs.

    2. Mike Taylor

      Precisely the conclusion I took from the heading; and half the reason I clicked, was to see why Cali's judiciary was going to have the effect

  3. Neoc

    And yet a simple solution, used by other engines, would be to have a nicely visible notice saying that (for example) "No products match your search", followed by "here are other products you might be interested in".

    Problem solved.

    1. ecofeco Silver badge

      Exactly. Amazon is deliberately misleading. Which is of course, the American way.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        > "Which is of course, the American way."

        So when it's unethical behavior in Britain that's being discussed, you then say "It's the British way", and the same goes for other countries, right?

        Or do you reserve such treatment only for your "most hated nations" list?

        1. ecofeco Silver badge

          BJ, Amazon is an American company. Get over yourself.

          1. Anonymous Coward

            Pure insight

            ''Amazon is an American company. Get over yourself."

            Ah, I get it now!

            America = Evil

            This explains everything!

    2. tom dial Silver badge

      As the staff in a brick and mortar jewelry store surely would do.

      Those who search on Amazon should expect to see results for products that Amazon or its vendors can supply. Sellers who decline to sell through Amazon are a bit cheeky to go to court and demand that Amazon, whose business is selling products, show nothing at all that doesn't match their brand. Those who do sell through Amazon can reasonably expect Amazon to requested results for their product ahead of results for similar and possibly substitutable products, but have no reason to expect Amazon to exclude others unless Amazon, possibly for a price, agreed to do so.

      1. Neoc

        @Tom Dial: not if a brand name was used in the search criteria. If the user asked for MTM watches then showing other brands WITHOUT CLEARLY STATING NO MTM WATCHES WERE FOUND is misleading the consumer. If you go to a chemist and ask for a specific brand of medicine and the chemist tries to sell you a different brand *without telling you*, surely you'd be pissed off. Or would you accept the "oh, but you should have noticed it wasn't the same brand when I handed it over to you" excuse?

    3. Lusty

      @Neoc the really nice thing is it would take Amazon about 10 seconds to change the site to do so and effectively make this court case null and void. Or they could leave America, that threat always seems to change the outcome of court decisions in the completely uncorrupt USA :)

    4. Bronek Kozicki

      Funny thing, Amazon does exactly this for majority of search terms. I guess "MTM" received special treatment and that is not cool.

  4. CoreVoid

    Exactly how is this a problem?

    So, I don't particularly like the business practices of Amazon, but for this particular case, I see nothing at all wrong with what they did. They did not explicitly advertise that product.

    I view this as if I had walked into a department store, gone to the men's watches section, and asked for a specific brand and model of watch, only to be told 'Sorry, we do not carry those. However, we do have these others, which are very similar to what you just asked me about.'

    How is it different from that?

    Maybe my perspective is wrong, but I don't see how that company has a legal basis for complaining. I can still see why they would complain, it certainly sucks, but I don't believe we should break everything just because one company can't figure out how to keep up with modern sales and marketing(hrm... music industry.. taxi industry... etc).

    1. notowenwilson

      Re: Exactly how is this a problem?

      The difference is that when you ask amazon for item X they aren't saying "we don't have them, but here's item Y which are similar" they are saying "here you go then" and displaying item Y.

      1. noem

        Re: Exactly how is this a problem?

        Given you can't find X, amazon has found Y. Y is clearly labeled as Y product. At best the hearsay the CEO of MTM offered up is hearsay, at worst he's liar and possibly guilty of perjury.

        Now go and try this in amazon's search for yourself "MTM watches" vs "MTM" vs "Multi Time Machine", the first one containing the key word "watches" is the only one that yields watches the other two inputs which contain only the brand name are completely unrelated to timepieces.

        So is it reasonable for amazon to return a search result containing watches if the input has that keyword or is it supposed to return absolutely nothing as soon as a brand is added to the search despite having a partial match for the input?

        This post gave me math flashbacks :)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Exactly how is this a problem?

          But if you type a rubbish name instead of MTM, say TMT, Amazon tells you that it found no results, then proceeds to give you results without the "tmt" part. So, if you're used to amazon, this is misleading, since it's not the usual response.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Exactly how is this a problem?


      > How is it different from that?

      Think of it in these terms instead: if I own Knock-Off Watches Ltd and I directly advertise my watches as MTM models then I would be breaking the law. If I were to advertise with a big MTM logo but a small print disclaimer at the bottom saying they are knock-offs then I would still be mis-using the MTM trademark and they would be able to sue me.

      So why should it be different if Amazon stick the MTM logo on my advert for me?

      A second point, not yet explored, is that Amazon could be deemed to be deliberately trying to 'punish' MTM, by promoting competitors at every opportunity, in retalliation for refusing to sell through Amazon. This is a clear breach of US unfair trade practice legislation and is likely to be the next legal avenue if MTM fail on the trade mark one.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Exactly how is this a problem?

      "How is it different from that?"

      It is the same as going into a cafe and asking for a "Coke" - which is probably a trademark for Coca Cola. If you are given a glass of a dark fizzy liquid that is another "cola" drink then that is possibly not what you ordered or expected.

      However there is a legal nicety when a brand name has become so ubiquitous that it becomes the generic name for something. The obvious examples are "Aspirin", "Petrol", and "Hoover".

      A more complete list and explanation on Wikipedia

      1. Fat-Boy-R-Dee

        Re: Exactly how is this a problem?

        "It is the same as going into a cafe and asking for a "Coke"

        Not to go off on *too* far of a tangent :-) - but sometimes that becomes genericized past the point of practicality. For example, here in the southeast US ...

        "Hey while you're in there, can you get me a Coke?"

        "Sure, what kind?"

        "Diet orange, please."

        1. User McUser

          Re: Exactly how is this a problem?

          sometimes that becomes genericized past the point of practicality.

          For reference in case you travel -

  5. punk4evr

    Some would be Hosed...

    Well Progressive would be really in a bind. Thats their whole selling point!

  6. Turtle


    "...Timex makes Versace watches..."


  7. punk4evr

    Wait, you mean...

    Wait, you mean my Rolex may not be a Real Rolex?> OMG how have we ever managed to by the Real Things, when we can't tell the difference! And my Hundai is really a JAG... so... There you go! My vw is also really a Porsche!

  8. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

    Have you got anything without spam?

    Amazon and Netflix not only offer alternative products to a search that returned no results, but return related searches that also produce only alternative products. Search for "WaffleWidget" and it returns results for "SpamWidget" plus a recommendation to search for "WaffleWidget Deluxe." Right, the deluxe one is it. Of course the search for "WaffleWidget Deluxe" returns results for "SpamWidget Spam Spam Deux" plus a similarly futile suggestion to search for "WaffleWidget 2016." I can definitely see companies getting just as irritated as customers about the brand mixing.

  9. Winkypop Silver badge


    Watch out.

    It's a jungle out there!

    1. 's water music

      Re: Amazon

      It's a jungle out there!

      It makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under

  10. david 12 Silver badge

    It's an abuse of trademark to supress competition..

    The intention is that you can't search for watches unless you already know a brand name.

    Owners of well-known brand-names want this. New market entrents don't want it.

    Consumers benifit from competition, big watch companies benefit from monopoly.

    And I don't give a damm about watches, but once they get this through the same applies to cars and dishwashers.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Apparently a court can rule that a successful trademark has become so popular that it is now a generic name for that type of product. "Petrol" is one of the least obvious in the UK. "Aspirin" is also generic is some countries - but in others it is still protected as a Bayer trademark.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      you can always type in "watch", "women's watch", "military watch" etc. But if I type in "Casio Watch" I don't want a Swatch.

  11. Big Al

    Net result? Amazon will add a line saying "Your search returned no results. Here are some products you might be interested in", and then carry on as now.

    This will not redefine site search.

  12. simon hewitt 1

    Save your money

    I recommend AliExpress, where you can get a similar watch from US$15, save a fortune!

  13. MrZoolook

    Here's an idea.

    Seeing as MTM are that concerned, how about every MTM advert states very prominently, that thier items are only for sale from the MTM store.

    That way, any customers seeing the advert and wanting only MTM products will know not to go anywhere else, anyone wanting an MTM but are open to other products can still search as per normal, and anyone wanting any other product won't need to type in an exact product name when any watch will do.

    Or perhaps MTM want us to back to the days without search boxes at all, and when searching meant clicking through a huge text list of items you absolutely don't want.

    Maybe people not wanting to buy MTM gear should lobby to prevent MTM adverts from being displayed irrelevantly. Maybe they should only send advertising mailshots to people who have already purchased from them before. That way people who don't want their trash, don't need to go through the trauma of having to see it advertised. Maybe it's time to file for a restraining order to prevent them from malicious advertising... or something. C'mon America, use those frivolous laws you keep passing to teach them a lesson.

  14. crediblywitless

    If I go into a shop and ask "Do you have [thing]?", and the shop doesn't have it, it's absolutely fine if I'm told "No, but we have [similar thing]". It isn't OK for someone in the shop to point to [similar thing] as if it was [thing]. So Amazon should make it clear, when this happens, that the search results are what it reckons are similar.

  15. Anonymous Coward

    Just as a side note:

    This has been going on for over a decade now:

    This UK bit is interesting and bear in mind this is 2004.

    The judge seemed to accept that there is much clutter in search engine results and that the public has become educated not to make a direct association between the keyword they type into a search engine and any pop-up advert that may appear.

    The outcome of the case may well have been very different if the totaljobs advert had made much more prominent use of the mark Reed.

  16. David Roberts

    Search engine?

    If I use Amazon to search for something specific I get thousands of unrelated crap results.

    I may well lack Amazon Search Ninja skills but I seem to have the option to see the results based on relevance or cost. So Amazon's idea of relevance or the cheapest of 32,000 irrelevant results.

    I end up having to use Google to search for Amazon hits.

    Not ideal.

    There may well be sophisticated marketing science behind this approach but it is certainly not customer friendly.

  17. Sirius Lee

    This will be appealed and it will be overturned. Imagine you walk into your local watch provider in the high street and ask for a particular brand of watch. If the vendor does not stock that specific watch we reasonably expect the vendor will offer suggestions for alternatives. We certainly do not expect them to stand there looking stupid waiting for us to request they offer some suggestions. Intelligent beings that we are, we can choose not to listen to any suggestions made and walk out. The same goes on-line. This ruling is anti-choice. Based on this ruling, if someone has suggested expensive product X search engines will be legally unable to suggest less expensive product Y. It's un-American.

    As I understand it this is a decision based on trade marks. There is nothing specific to search engines about the operation of trade marks so any rulings apply in the real world as well. As a result, this ruling applies to vendors in the high street selling, as the Saturday Night sketch has it, selling Pepsi.

    Now some will argue that trade marks are about a visual representation, the 'mark'. But no trade mark legislation exclude the oral version. So until this overturned expect many cases trying to prevent vendor suggesting alternatives.

    Customer: "Coke, please"

    Wait person: <Bemused silence>

    I look forward to an updated sketch.

  18. msknight

    Second hand selling?

    Pardon the pun with this being talk about watches an all, but anyone who isn't a primary retailer could, theoretically ... and actually ... sell thier watch anywhere. Are they also to be banned from appearing in searches?

    This sounds like very dodgy territory to me.

  19. Ancientbr IT

    My Mileage Does Vary

    Whenever I do a search on Google for an explicit string (i.e., enclosed in double quotes), the result sometimes includes the statement (and I'm paraphrasing) "We couldn't find anything for the exact string you requested. These results are for the string without quotes" and then beneath each result that doesn't have one of the terms I included, that term is presented as struck through.

    I'm not sure why the court ruled the way it did...

  20. ZenCoder

    I know many of you claim to be confused but lets play guess the brand.

    "Luminox Evo Navy Seal Blackout Mens Watch 3051.BLACKOUT

    by Luminox"

    "DETOMASO Siena Chronograph Black Men's Quartz Watch with Black Stainless Steel Bracelet

    by DETOMASO Watches"

    "Invicta Men's 6582 "Subaqua Noma IV" Stainless Steel and Black Polyurethane Watch

    by Invicta"

  21. Cuddles

    Seems incredibly simple to solve

    "Sorry, your search did not provide any results. Here are some other products related to your search and/or things other people bought after making similar searches".

    It's the exact "No Coke, Pepsi" response that the court thinks should be given, while still providing the consumer friendly related results in case the product they search for isn't available or may be inferior to (or at least less popular than) other options. Given that Amazon already splits results pages into sections in a manner pretty close to that (what other people bought after viewing this, suggestions based on your recent searches, etc.), this would be an incredibly minor and simple change for them to make. Certainly there's no suggestion that anyone will need to completely rethink anything about searching.

  22. PaulusTheGrey

    Has any one considered that....

    ....the "fuzzyness" of their search could originally have been down to sloppy programming and it was when they realised they were on to amoney-spinner they kept it?

    I have bemoaned Amazon's search engine for an awfully long time and this court ruling backs up what I have thought for ages - they now have deliberately programmed in irrelevance.

  23. busycoder99

    Wouldn't a simple "we found 0 results for your search terms, but we found these other products that might be similar to what you are looking for" lay the issue to rest, somewhat like what ebay does?

  24. Chris Evans

    Amazon's search is useless

    I hardly ever use Amazon as apart from the special searches for books its search is useless. Often most of the results don't match my search terms

    I thought I must have missed the section explaining it so I phoned them and apart from selecting a department I was told there wasn't a way of searching for "6 pin" OR "6pin".

    Even a supervisor didn't know that you can get it to omit products with e.g. -red

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