When innovation meets the law, the results are often surprising. 

We in Seattle are confronting this as ride services like Lyft compete with a regulated taxi industry.

Now consider Pirate Joe’s, a business located in the upscale Kitsilano neighborhood of Vancouver, B.C..  I will let them describe their business model in their own words:

Pirate Joe’s is an unaffiliated unauthorized re-seller of Trader Joe’s products (we are being sued). We stock what we are asked to stock by Trader Joe’s lovers who don’t always have the time (or a car or a passport) to head south to Bellingham (the nearest Trader Joe’s). We buy retail from Trader Joe’s then import everything legally and add Canadian compliant ingredient and nutrition facts labels. We have to pay the rent and the help (and the label supplier) so prices are higher than at Trader Joe’s. We have no set markup – every product we carry has different import and transport issues so we kinda just wing it until it seems fair to you and also makes business sense to us. If something seems overpriced, please tell us – we’re sensitive about it. ;-)

Trader Joe’s has no locations in Canada.  Canadians who live in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland can access the store at 2410 James Street, Bellingham, Washington or the many located further south in the Seattle metropolitan area.  But this requires them to travel, to have a passport, to brave the line at customs, to use American money, etc.  Pirate Joe’s will do all that for them, and allow them to buy in comfort using Canadian money in Kitsilano. 

One way Trader Joe’s could look at this is they were getting a free ride into the Canadian market.  Pirate Joe’s paid them exactly what they would have been paid had the same customers all driven down to Bellingham and bought the products there.  If Trader Joe’s wanted to enter Canada, it would have to deal with export and import issues, Canadian labeling issues, Canadian taxes, Canadian employment law, the foreign exchange issue, and the price of Vancouver real estate, to name just a few.  Instead, they just make sales at retail to Pirate Joe’s, owe him nothing for the service of advertising their products in Canada in the best possible way, or for affixing Canadian labels to the goods, handling the taxes, leasing space, putting up a website or anything else. 

Instead, Trader Joe’s sued Pirate Joe’s in federal court in Seattle.

And, so far, has lost

Pirate Joe’s is actually just an assumed name of Michael Norman Hallatt, who is a Canadian citizen with permanent residency in the United States.  Thus, Trader Joe’s could sue him in the United States and in federal court. 

The basic claim was a Lanham Act claim.  This is the main trademark act in the United States, but the question that Judge Marsha Pechman had to answer was whether it has extraterritorial impact.  In other words, in these circumstances, did the purchase of these goods in the United States at full retail price and importation, legally according to Canadian customs, into Canada violate American law? 

Under Ninth Circuit precedent, a Lanham Act claim can have extraterritorial effect under a three prong test:

  1. The defendant’s action creates some effect on American foreign commerce
  2. The effect is sufficiently great to present a cognizable injury to plaintiff under the Lanham Act
  3. The interests of and links to American foreign commerce are sufficiently strong in relation to those of other nations to justify an assertion of extraterritorial authority.

The court determined, on a motion to dismiss, that Trader Joe’s could not meet these tests.  The court relied on a Ninth Circuit decision involving a fight between Mike Love and Brian Wilson, both former Beach Boys.  Wilson had had a CD that included covers of old Beach Boys hits distributed with the Daily Mail in England to promote his "Smile" album and concerts.  Love, who had the right to the Beach Boys trademarks, sued.  But the Ninth Circuit found that any injury to him was not in the American market.  Similarly, Trader Joe’s could not show that it was injured at all in the American market, since it had received literally as much money as it would have if Pirate Joe’s customers had crossed the border and bought the goods in Bellingham. 

A far more interesting question would be what would happen if Trader Joe’s wanted to open stores in Canada.  But that would represent issues of Canadian law that should be decided by Canadian courts.  Here, Judge Pechman’s decision that Pirate Joe’s is not damaging Trader Joe’s in the United States seems correct. 

How can Pirate Joe’s survive, given that it obviously has to mark up Trader Joe’s prices significantly to cover its costs and some profit?  The answer lies in the price differential between the United States and Canada.  A decade ago, I spent a month in Canada when the Canadian dollar was at about 62 cents U.S.  Now it is essentially par, but Canadian prices have risen, not fallen, as the value of their dollar has increased.  So Canadians are just used to paying one-third or more higher prices for the same goods in the U.S.  Add in the convenience and cachet of the Trader Joe’s goods available on a store shelf in Kitsilano, and the business model makes some sense.