Rosetta Stone Ltd provides software programs which help people learn new languages.  Courses of varying difficulty are available, in numerous languages, and are marketed to consumers in bright yellow boxes via print ads (who could forget the plight of the hardworking farm boy, who must quickly learn Italian to impress a supermodel?), and of course over the Internet.

In a complaint filed recently in California federal court, Rosetta Stone accuses a competitor, Rocket Languages, and others (including Rocket Language’s advertising firm) of federal trademark infringement, dilution, federal and state unfair competition, and false advertising.  According to Rosetta Stone, the defendants have been engaging in a practice called “piggybacking,” whereby a company uses the trademarks of its competitor in composing internet search ads, the effect of which is to divert traffic from the competitor’s site to the company’s. Rosetta Stone also alleges affiliates of Rocket Languages feature supposedly independent side-by-side comparison reviews of Rosetta Stone’s programs and other language-learning software, without revealing that the comparisons are in fact paid for by Rocket Languages. The situation highlights the power of a trademark as a source-identifier, and the potential consequences which result from a mark’s misappropriation.  While consumers use the trademark to identify a company’s goods and services, a competitor can surreptitiously use the trademark to search out the company’s products as consumers do, and then head the consumers off at the pass, presenting them instead with ads for, and links to, the competitor’s own products.  It is important for trademark owners to be vigilant, and to secure creative trademark counsel to help thwart such practices, which can have powerfully detrimental effects on the owner’s business and goodwill.