Facebook dispute over Timeline trademark to go to jury trial

Facebook had asked the court for a summary judgement on the claims of plaintiff Timelines

A trademark infringement lawsuit against Facebook over its use of 'timeline' will go to trial before a jury, after a judge ruled that the company had failed to show that the trademark was generic or descriptive, or Facebook's use of it amounted to fair use.

Timelines, a website to collaboratively record and share history, filed a complaint against Facebook in September, 2011, and sought a restraining order to bar Facebook from offering its Timeline service, but this was denied, according to records of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division.

The company was set up in January, 2007 and launched its Timelines.com website in 2009. It owns U.S. federal trademark registration numbers for "Timelines," "Timelines.com" and for its "Timelines" design mark, according to court papers. It also operates a website called LifeSnapz.com and other services.

Facebook filed for a summary judgment on each of the claims of the plaintiff and on its own counterclaims, including cancellation of Timelines' registered marks, which was refused by the judge on Monday. The case is now set to proceed to trial before a jury on April 22.

Noting that the term 'timeline' has been used generically by other companies, District Judge John W. Darrah observed that Timelines.com had stated that there were differences in the way those companies used the term. The goods or services these companies offered were also software-based and not Web-based, the timelines are static, and products are mainly priced, unlike Timelines' own service.

Facebook admitted that it was aware of the plaintiff before announcing Facebook Timeline and had begun development of its Timeline feature as early as October 2010, for one because it believed that the term would help it in search engine optimization.

The company has, however, argued that the term 'timeline' is either a generic term or merely a descriptive term, without secondary meaning, when the name of the product or service becomes uniquely associated with the original seller. Facebook has also argued that it makes fair use of the term, and cannot be liable for infringement as a matter of law.

"Plaintiff had more than nominal sales and over one-thousand active users on its website, Timelines.com," the judge wrote in his order. "At this stage in the proceedings, it is not unreasonable to conclude that as to this group of users, 'timeline(s)' had acquired a specific meaning associated with Plaintiff."

John Ribeiro covers outsourcing and general technology breaking news from India for The IDG News Service. Follow John on Twitter at @Johnribeiro. John's e-mail address is john_ribeiro@idg.com

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