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Axa sues in France

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French insurance giant AXA is taking Google to court over allegations that the search engine sold on AXA trademarks as search terms.

The case centres on use of "Adwords" - search terms which trigger paid-for results. AXA claims that Google users searching for "AXA" or "direct assurance" were shown ads from rival insurers alongside search results.

An initial hearing will be held in Paris on 10 May. Both companies confirmed the case was live but refused to make further comment to AP.

Google is already in dispute in the US with American Blind and Wallpaper Factory which is laying claim to trademark terms as well what Google says are generic terms such as "american blinds" or "american wallpaper discount". The decorator sent a list of more than 30 search terms it laid claim to. Google claims such terms are generic and descriptive and therefore cannot be copyrighted. The list includes "american wall covering", "american wallpaper discount", "decorate today" and "decorate today discount".

Google agreed in September 2002 to remove trademarked terms which had been bought by rival wallpaper sellers. After continued complaints from American Blind, Google counter-sued in California in November 2003 seeking relief, the costs of its action and a jury trial to determine the legality of keyword-triggered advertising.

Google is keen to gain a definitive ruling to protect its lucrative paid search advertising business. A negative ruling will also call into question the search advertising revenues of the likes of Yahoo!, MSN and AOL. Paid search accounted for 35 per cent of US online ad revenues in 2003, up from 15 per cent in 2002. This ad category drove the first annual rise in online ad revenues since 2000, according to a PwC report published last week.

Google found itself in court in France in October 2003 for selling the keywords "bourse des vols" (flight market) to a travel firm. The phrase was a registered trademark of another firm and Google was fined €70,000 for copyright infringement.

Playboy pursued Netscape on similar trademark grounds. The case took five years to reach the federal appeal court where it was settled in January this year. Terms were not made public.

Google is widely expected to file its intention to IPO with the Securities and Exchange Commission this week. ®

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