Command centre for the LVMHcampaign to protect its luxury brands in the wild west of the internet is the wood-panelled ninth floor of an imposing building on Paris's Avenue Montaigne, with a view over the Seine to the Eiffel Tower.
Here Pierre Godé, senior executive vice-president of LVMH, whose remit includes corporate strategy and digital matters, spends his days assembling a modern arsenal of diplomacy and lawsuits in an attempt to enforce the same guidelines in the virtual world as in the real one. After all, if street vendors selling fake Louis Vuitton bags or Dior perfumes are a thorn in the luxury group's side, then how much more insidious are the here today, gone tomorrow online merchants? And what about search engines that allow anyone to use a brand name in an advertisement?
Or so LVMH believes, to the extent that it has taken legal action against two of the internet's biggest players, Google and Ebay. The internet companies have both legally begged to differ.
In 2008, the Paris Commercial Court found in favour of the luxury brand in a suit against the online auction house. And on Tuesday, the European Court of Justice will rule on a suit brought by LVMH, among others, against Google France for allowing other companies to use keywords that correspond to trademarks in advertisements on Google. In September, a preliminary opinion from an ECJ advocate-general found that Google's activities did not amount to trademark infringement – although this is not binding on the full court.
The luxury world will be watching closely. LVMH is not the only high-end conglomerate to face
these issues but it is the most litigious in its approach, making it the de facto public face of the conflict.
“We have invested so much money to enhance and protect our brands and our brand experience that it is impossible to accept a scenario where someone else who has no understanding of this or interest in it would sell our brands and destroy that value,” says Mr Godé.
He is careful to play down the perception that LVMH is particularly aggressive when it comes to online issues, stating it is consistent with the company's approach to protecting its brand in the real world.
“We sue landlords every day if we think they have been leasing space to illegal vendors,” he says. “It's considered normal. We spend 20 times the amount of budget on brick and mortar protection than we do on online initiatives.”
The problem, however, is that when it comes to the virtual world, Mr Godé is not just taking on counterfeiters and non-approved vendors and free-loaders, but an idea about the freedom of the internet itself.
“There is always a tension between the internet and intellectual property rights,” says Avril Martindale, a partner who specialises in intellectual property at Freshfields, the law firm.
Perhaps because of this, Mr Godé says, LVMH has come to the conclusion “that we really don't want to be in a position where we keep suing people; we need to create a sense of governance online that all these companies can be a part of”.
To that end, they are working with the Internet Market Commission in Brussels to try to craft an agreement to cover luxury distribution online. They have also considered allocating “marks of approval” to various vendors that consumers can use as guidelines, and are slowly reaching agreements with subsidiaries of the main platforms round the world, such as Yahoo Japan, which in 2009 signed a “memorandum of understanding” regarding counterfeiters.
“The platforms are key,” says Mr Godé, “because they have the broadest public reach and provide the fastest access to consumers. Even a few years ago, there was a sense we were dealing with two different worlds, and they would never agree and be able to work together. But today I think we are close. I really believe we will reach an agreement.”
Or at least an armistice.