February 27, 2009
Republishing Solicited Email May Not Qualify for 47 USC 230 Immunization--Woodhull v. Meinel
By Eric Goldman
The last time I blogged about an Internet decision from New Mexico, I wrote that I suspected "the New Mexico judicial system still doesn't understand Internet technology very well." Today's case gives us further reason to be suspicious.
On its face, this appears to be a garden-variety defamation claim. The plaintiff, Angela Victoria Woodhull, claims that Carolyn Meinel, a blogger at "happyhacker.org" (and self-described "only over-50 woman hacker in the world"), posted two defamatory messages. The first post, in 2003, alleged that Woodhull had asked Meinel to illegally hack a site that had unflattering content about Woodhull. In 2006, Meinel posted about Woodhull again, recapping the 2003 incident and saying "that Defendant's only recourse against Plaintiff for her alleged unlawful request was 'to make fun of her on this website.'" The 2006 post also contained an email from a staff member at a University of Florida student newspaper, which Meinel had apparently asked if they had any dirt on Woodhull. The resulting email "contained details about a dispute between Plaintiff and the [student newspaper] related to whether a play by Plaintiff featured 'dancing penises and condoms.' Defendant additionally commented that further research revealed that Plaintiff had 'been on America's Funniest Home Videos' and 'says she is proud to be known as Wedgie Woman.'" The defamatory import of these emailed statements is not immediately clear to me, but maybe I'm missing something.
The court first addresses the statute of limitations issue. The court adopts the single publication rule for Internet postings, meaning that the SOL does not reset with every access of the web page. It also means that the SOL does not reset when other parts of the website are modified or even if technical modifications are made to the post. However, substantive modifications can reset the SOL, and the court says it's up to a jury to decide if the 2006 post was a substantive modification of the initial 2003 post sufficient to reset the SOL on the 2003 post.
The court then moves on to the 47 USC 230 discussion. This should have been easy because the law is really, really clear. 47 USC 230 does not apply to the content authored by Meinel, but it unambiguously immunizes Meinel for reposting the third party email See Barrett v. Rosenthal, Batzel v. Smith, D'Alonzo, the multitudinous Ripoff Report cases, and many others.
Somehow the court misinterprets the precedent, saying that Meinel's solicitation of the email and incorporation of the email into her larger post might negate the 230 immunization:
Instead of merely editing an email from a third party, Defendant apparently requested potentially defamatory material for her own stated purpose of “‘making fun of’ Plaintiff.” That material was incorporated into an overall larger posting containing her own thoughts and contributions....Therefore, Defendant's actions could reasonably be viewed as going beyond what is protected by the CDA, exposing Defendant to potential liability as an original “information content provider.”
This conclusion might find some support in the Roommates.com en banc opinion, but the court does not cite Roommates.com at all. How in the world did the court miss the Roommates.com precedent??? The court does cite to Batzel several times, although I'm not clear what's left of Batzel after the Roommates.com decision.
The court partially corrects its legal error by noting that the factfinder might view the single blog post as two discrete components--one protected by 230; the other not. Nevertheless, this means the defendant now has to win at trial instead of getting the quick and easy 230 dismissal.
We've seen a few other cases where plaintiffs have successfully overcome 230 as applied to third party content, but those opinions are extremely rare, which makes this case noteworthy on that basis alone. Even so, I'm going to chalk up this goofy ruling to New Mexico courts' demonstrated struggles understanding Internet law. Especially in light of the opinion's poor citation of the applicable precedent, I expect very few cases will follow in this court's footsteps.
February 26, 2009
McGeveran on Facebook Beacon and Social Media Marketing
By Eric Goldman
Bill McGeveran, a law professor at University of Minnesota, has posted Disclosure, Endorsement, and Identity in Social Marketing to SSRN. The paper walks through Facebook Beacon and marketers' other efforts to take advantage of online word of mouth through social media. It's a surprisingly complex endeavor to parse the various harms putatively experienced by consumers and applicable legal regulations protecting against those harms, and McGeveran's paper navigates through the morass in a sophisticated but easy-to-read way. Facebook Beacon may be over as a cause celebre, but for reasons that McGeveran explains, online word of mouth marketing will undoubtedly play a big role in our future.
"Social marketing" is among the newest advertising trends now emerging on the internet. Using online social networks such as Facebook or MySpace, marketers can send personalized promotional messages featuring an ordinary customer to that customer's friends. Because they reveal a customer's browsing and buying patterns, and because they feature implied endorsements, the messages raise significant concerns about disclosure of personal matters, information quality, and individuals' ability to control the commercial exploitation of their identity. Yet social marketing falls through the cracks between several different legal paradigms that might allow its regulation-spanning from privacy to trademark and unfair competition to consumer protection to the appropriation tort and rights of publicity. This Article examines potential concerns with social marketing and the various legal responses available. It demonstrates that none of the existing legal paradigms, which all evolved in response to particular problems, addresses the unique new challenges posed by social marketing. Even though policymakers ultimately may choose not to regulate social marketing at all, that decision cannot be made intelligently without first contemplating possible problems and solutions. The Article concludes by suggesting a legal response that draws from existing law and requires only small changes. In doing so, it provides an example for adapting existing law to new technology, and it argues that law should play a more active role in establishing best practices for emerging online trends.
February 25, 2009
Domaining Registrar Defeats Cybersquatting Lawsuit--Philbrick v. eNom
By Eric Goldman
Philbrick's Sports is a New Hampshire retailer of sporting goods. eNom's customer registered two domain name variants of Philbrick Sport's website. When the customer didn't pay eNom, eNom took the names back for itself. Subsequently, eNom registered another domain name variant of Philbrick's website through a domain name tasting program. Each of these domain names were parked with Yahoo, who displayed sponsored ads on the domains. Philbrick's then sued eNom, claiming cybersquatting and trademark infringement.
Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) and Trademark
The court sidesteps the complexities associated with the domain name registrar safe harbor when applied to a registrar holding the domain name for itself, but calls eNom's argument "troubling" (for a little more on this, see my blog post on OnlineNIC). Instead, the court finds that the Philbrick trademark is neither famous (thus not triggering the ACPA protection for famous marks) nor distinctive because it's a personal name and the plaintiffs failed to establish secondary meaning. The fame analysis is actually easy due to the geographically limited footprint of the business, although the court doesn't reference that.
To overcome the fact that Philbrick is the plaintiff's surname, the plaintiff makes a common argument that eNom intentionally copied the plaintiff's trademark, which the plaintiff argues should act as prima facie evidence that the mark has achieved secondary meaning (i.e., if the term is meaningless to consumers, why is the defendant mimicking it?). Philbrick's goes further to argue that Yahoo's auto-population of the links provides evidence that Yahoo recognizes the Philbrick's mark and is responding to it. The court rejects these arguments, correctly calling them "circular," and ultimately concludes they are unpersuasive. It was nice to see a court apply a rigorous scrutiny of secondary meaning considerations, rather than rotely rubber-stamping data that only acts as a proxy for consumer perceptions.
The net result is a painful outcome for the plaintiff. As we've seen before (e.g., the American Blinds lawsuit), the plaintiff walks out of court with fewer trademarked assets than it thought it had.
With Philbrick's marks declared non-distinctive for lack of secondary meaning, Philbrick's trademark infringement claim drops away. For good measure, the court independently concludes that there was no likelihood of consumer confusion.
In an unusual move, the plaintiff brought a "cyberpiracy" claim for registering a domain name containing his personal name (15 USC 1129). This portion of the ACPA is lightly litigated because it only applies when the registrant obtains a domain name for profitable resale, and few domain registrants do that any more. Rather than ruling on this ground, the court says that the domain "philbricksports" is not substantially similar to the plaintiff's name of "Daniel Philbrick," and thus the claim fails for lack of similarity. This is a pretty narrow reading of 1129 because it seems to allow a personal name in the domain name so long as there is a substantial noun in the domain name as well. If this reading holds, we'll see even fewer 1129 claims in the future.
A false advertising claim fails as well. The plaintiff claimed that the headline "Welcome to Philbrickports.com” was false, but because the domain was Philbrickports.com, this headline is unquestionably true.
In addition to the factual novelty of the case (the registrar as an ACPA defendant and the 1129 cyberpiracy claim), some other interesting angles to this case:
* I've repeatedly argued that lawsuits over domain names don't make economic sense, and we get more evidence of that here. The court cites evidence that one domain name generated $183.29 in revenue and a second domain name generated 70 cents of revenue. If Philbrick's doesn't get statutory damages from the court, with numbers like these, there is no possible way that a court will award enough damages to make this lawsuit economically rational.
* the case does not cite the limited precedents involving domainers and cybersquatting. Most conspicuous is the absence of a citation to Verizon v. Navigation Catalyst, which is the flagship plaintiff's win in the area. Verizon's other big win, with $33M in damages, didn't get a mention either.
* the court rejects any initial interest confusion argument with a nice shoutout:
it is worth noting that the initial interest confusion doctrine has been criticized as “predicated on multiple and empirically unsupported assumptions about searcher behavior” on the Internet, e.g., “that using a trademarked keyword means that the searcher wanted to find the trademark owner.” Eric Goldman, Deregulating Relevancy in Internet Trademark Law, 54 Emory L.J. 507, 555-56 (2005). That is yet a further problem with the proof in this case-apart from the one customer who encountered the “philbricksports.com” site while looking for the plaintiffs, there is no evidence to suggest how anyone else ended up there, and thus no basis to assume that they were necessarily trying to find the plaintiffs' business but became “lost,” even initially.
I love it when a court does good research! :-)
In the end, eNom wins summary judgment on all claims. According to this news report, Philbrick plans to appeal. From my perspective, that doesn't look like a prudent call. Putting aside the illogic of throwing more money at these not-worth-it domain names, the district judge missed a number of defense-favorable rationales to support its ruling. As a result, there is plenty of room for an appeals court to find alternative grounds to affirm.
UPDATE: Marty Schwimmer doesn't agree with this opinion or with me. Marty is right that the court was decidedly not generous with the secondary meaning analysis, although I did like that the court didn't just accept the plaintiff's arguments blindly.
February 24, 2009
Zango v. Kaspersky Ninth Circuit Oral Arguments
By Eric Goldman
The Ninth Circuit has posted the audio of the February 2, 2009 oral arguments in Zango v. Kaspersky, the important 47 USC 230(c)(2) case about vendors' abilities to classify third party content as spam, viruses, adware/spyware, etc. The judges were Betty Fletcher, Pamela Rymer and Raymond Fisher.
The judges' questions were pretty good. Judge Fisher was by far the most spirited jurist at this hearing. It was interesting to hear him tell Zango's counsel that he thought Batzel and Roommates.com are irrelevant to the case. But Judge Fisher also asked a tough question of Kaspersky's counsel about why McAfee has blocked him from getting to websites he wanted.
The case library:
* Zango's reply brief [warning: 3+ MB file]
* Amicus brief by CDT in favor of Kaspersky
* Kaspersky's answering brief [warning: 5MB file]
* National Business Coalition on E-Commerce and Privacy amicus brief in favor of Zango
* Zango's appeal brief [warning: 2.1MB file]
* The district court's dismissal and my commentary
* TRO Denial and my commentary
* Kaspersky's Response to TRO Motion
* Zango's TRO motion
Guerrilla Marketing Under False Pretenses Might Be Passing Off--Heartland v. Forest River
By Eric Goldman
Heartland Recreational Vehicles, LLC v. Forest River, Inc., 2009 WL 418079 (N.D. Ind. Feb. 18, 2009). The Justia page.
When deciding whether it should bring a lawsuit, a potential plaintiff needs to consider not only their likelihood of winning, but also the risk that the lawsuit will prompt some counterclaims or affirmative defenses that leave the plaintiff worse off than if it had never sued in the first place. We've seen several examples of plaintiffs who probably wished they hadn't started the litigation. See, e.g., American Blinds, Axact, and Buying for the Home. Sometimes it really is better to do nothing.
Today's lawsuit started with a patent infringement claim by Heartland, a manufacturer of travel trailers/RVs, against its competitor Forest River. Forest River strikes back against Heartland by arguing that Heartland engaged in a type of guerrilla marketing. Here's a recap (based on the facts recounted in the opinion):
Forest River brought RV dealers to lovely Mishawaka, Indiana (a suburb of South Bend) for a private trade show (which sounded like an event to wine-and-dine dealers of Forest River's RVs). Forest River put the 700+ attendees up at local hotels. Heartland apparently got wind of the shindig and prepared packets for these attendees containing comparative advertising and an invitation to visit Heartland's facility in beautiful Elkhart, Indiana (also part of the greater South Bend/Michiana metro area). Then, while the attendees were at one of Forest River's events, Heartland employees:
went to the front desks of the hotels and then falsely stated and represented to the hotel attendants that they were "from Forest River" and that they had "important" envelopes which needed to be delivered to the Forest River guests "for a Forest River dealer meeting the next day."
At least two hotel security cameras caught Heartland employees making these requests. (Say cheese!) Not wanting to reject a request putatively from a major customer, the hotel employees dutifully distributed Heartland's packets to the guests staying there. According to Forest River, Heartland's action caused "disruption and confusion among several of Forest River's guests because of the incongruity and surprising manner in which the envelopes were delivered ... [and] adversely affect[ed] Forest River's good will with its dealers and adversely affected Forest River's sales of its products."
Clearly Heartland isn't afraid of aggressive marketing. But was their stunt illegal?
The opinion does not suggest that Heartland's packets contained deceptive marketing materials. The court also does not say that Heartland misappropriated a trade secret or otherwise impermissibly learned about the attendees (although the opinion implies that Heartland might have gotten an illicit copy of the attendee list). Further, knowing that the dealer group was in town, Heartland can freely communicate with the attendees in a variety of ways--billboards, radio ads, even leafletters standing outside the various hotels
So the main crux of the problem is Heartland's apparent misrepresentation to the hotel employees to get them to distribute the packets to the hotel guests. Is such a misrepresentation actionable by the putatively harmed competitor? The court expresses doubt about the merits of Forest River's claim but does not dismiss it, saying:
Heartland's intentionally deceptive conduct in the hotel action plausibly had the natural and probable tendency and effect of which was to deceive the public so as to pass off its goods or business as for that of Forest River. Moreover, the Court will not condone Heartland's actions as simply healthy competition.
One possible lesson from this case is that it would make a lot of sense for Heartland and Forest River to collaborate on a greater Michiana RV trade show that would have given them shared access to the dealer group. This would have mitigated the risk of guerrilla marketing by one of the local competitors and allowed them to share expenses.
Another lesson is that the case reinforces the already well-established rule that marketers should not lie in marketing campaigns, either in the marketing message's substance or to get the marketing message delivered.
Finally. the case reminded me a little of the Toy Manufacturer's case (Toy Manufacturers of America, Inc. v. Helmsley-Spear, Inc., 960 F.Supp. 673 (SDNY 1997)), which suggests that certain kinds of time-and-space adjacencies for competitive activities are not permissible. For more discussion about the trademark implications of such adjacencies, see my Brand Spillovers article.
February 23, 2009
Bay Area Blawgers 4.0, March 18, 6-8 pm, SCU
By Eric Goldman
The High Tech Law Institute at SCU Law is sponsoring the fourth gathering of Bay Area legal bloggers/blawgers. We'll have an hour of structured discussion and lots of mingle time. The theme for the discussion will be "Blawger Burnout." Light refreshments will be served. The details:
Who: The event will cater principally to legal bloggers in the Bay Area, but everyone is welcome. Expected attendees include Harry Boadwee, Anthony Corso, Cathy Gellis, Eric Goldman, Paul Gowder, Rudy Guyon, Joy Haas, Kirk Hanson, Eric Hartnett, Greg Haverkamp, Gordon Johnson, Brandy Karl (maybe), Kimberly Kralowec, Linsey Krolik, Mike Masnick, Cathy Moran, Amy Morganstern, Joe Mullin, Deborah Neville, Colin Samuels, Michael Sardina, Erik Schmidt, Mister Thorne, Kevin Underhill, Virginia Waite and Julia Wei.
When: March 18, 6-8 pm
CLE: This event qualifies for 1 hour of general CLE credit. Santa Clara University School of Law is a State Bar of California approved MCLE provider.
How: Please RSVP to Eric Goldman
EVERYONE IS WELCOME! Please extend the invitation to anyone you think might be interested.
February 20, 2009
Facebook User Agreement Imbroglio Recap (and Some Comments of My Own)
By Eric Goldman
I didn't have a chance to blog on the Facebook user agreement amendment flap in real-time, but now that Facebook has rolled back its amendments and everyone is catching their breath, the Monday morning quarterbacking is proceeding in full earnest. Some of the articles that caught my attention:
* CNET News.com: "Facebook's about-face: Change we can believe in?"
* InternetNews: "Experts: Facebook Must Rethink TOS Stance"
* EFF: "Facebook's reaction is a tremendous victory for its users." I guess that's true, in the way that getting back to zero at a casino sometimes can be considered a win.
* Bill McGeveran powerfully (and with irony) demonstrates that Facebook's terms weren't all that unusual. Et tu, Consumerist?
Some of my own observations:
* When you're a high-profile company living in the media fishbowl like Facebook, there is no such thing as a minor amendment to your user agreement.
* Facebook's amendments--and the news reports about them--were confusing for two independent but often correlated problems. First, lay readers often misread user agreements, especially broad license grants that users mistakenly read as statements of ownership. This is a well-known and long-standing phenomenon; see, e.g., the flap over GeoCities' user agreement from a decade ago. So initial news reports on Facebook's amendments were garbled and perhaps overly dramatic.
Second, Internet lawyers often draft user agreements using legalese in ways that make the agreements indecipherable to lay readers...and, not infrequently, to other lawyers. Having drafted a lot of them in my life, I'm a pretty sophisticated reader of user agreements, yet it took me a fair amount of time to parse Facebook's license terms to figure out what they were saying--and, even then, I wasn't quite sure. In particular, the "perpetual" and "irrevocable" terms in the license agreement were in seeming conflict with Facebook's promise in the same license grant to honor a user's privacy settings. In other words, if a user can set the configurations to remove content from Facebook's purview and Facebook will honor those instructions, then how is Facebook's license grant irrevocable? Unless I'm missing something big, this looked to me like a drafting error by Facebook. (And check out Nancy Kim's op-ed identifying this exact issue--in March 2008).
This suggests a drafting lesson we might internalize from Facebook's hassles (Jonathan Zittrain makes a complementary point). We as Cyberlawyers are used to parroting the exact words from the applicable statutes and caselaw because it seemingly increases the precision of the agreement, but frankly I think Facebook and other Internet companies would do a whole lot better--both legally and in the court of public opinion--if it junked the legalese and actually tried to write license grants in real English.
* Partially obscured in the haze is the lurking question of whether Facebook can unilaterally amend its user agreement without providing any notice to users. I don't even see this as a close question. From my reading of the precedents, I think the answer is pretty emphatically NO, both as a matter of contract law (and see more; but compare MySpace v. theglobe.com) and FTC law (see, e.g., the Gateway Learning case). Without a doubt, I wouldn't want to be Facebook trying to defend the new incremental changes in court.
* I got a few inquiries about whether a lawsuit against Facebook would have been successful. As Ethan explained recently, there may be unexpected hurdles to any such lawsuits.
* Now that Facebook has stirred the hornet's nest, it's not clear that they can simply roll back to the prior version of the user agreement and put everyone back in the happy apple. Instead, having called attention to its licensing policies, Facebook will be lucky if the pre-amendment terms survive as those undergo critical and jaundiced scrutiny from users. David Kirkpatrick touches on this.
* No matter how Facebook resolves its agreement, this episode has been damaging to its trust relationship with its users. It gives users yet another reason to question whether Facebook is a site we can trust. For users who lived through the Newsfeed and Beacon episodes, this may be a three-strike situation. For others, the fracas is yet another wedge in the users' relationship with Facebook. Trust is hard to earn and easy to lose.
Having said that, in the past couple of quarters, Facebook has been riding a strong network effects bull and seeing remarkable growth DESPITE Beacon. So Beacon clearly did not destroy users' trust in Facebook. At the same time, if users fall out of love of Facebook due to loss of trust, they will scale back their involvement with Facebook, which ultimately could negate the network effects benefits they are currently experiencing. IMO, this is the real risk created by Facebook's highly publicized problems.
February 19, 2009
TradeComet Sues Google for Antitrust Violations
By Eric Goldman
TradeComet, which operates the SourceTool.com website, has sued Google for a variety of antitrust violations. As is typically the case with lawsuits against Google, this lawsuit turned into a media event, and TradeComet's PR firm did a great job pushing this story into AP, NYT, CNET News.com, BusinessWeek and many others. Maybe SourceTool hoped to get some PageRank bounce from such broad media coverage? (sorry, no link love from me).
The lawsuit was filed by lawyers at Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft, one of the oldest and most prestigious law firms in the country, which is of some note because that firm has represented Microsoft in various dealings that would have some bearing on Google's market position (such as Microsoft's aborted takeover of Yahoo). Further, Cadwalader has had a particularly rough time in this market downturn, so perhaps they had some lawyers with idle hands...?
The complaint itself is the typical grumblings of an unhappy advertiser who wanted more traffic for less money. We've heard these complaints from advertisers many, many times before. Advertisers tend to be a particularly hard-to-please bunch. TradeComet tries to connect the dots that Google's price increase was due to Google's efforts to squelch SourceTool's competition with Google, which would be a more convincing argument if anyone actually believed that the two were bona fide competitors.
In terms of legal precedent, there are three cases of note here:
1) KinderStart v. Google. KinderStart was a vertical portal (in this respect, not dissimilar to SourceTool in marketplace juxtaposition with Google) that had its PageRank slashed and was de-indexed for a time. KinderStart brought a variety of claims against Google, including an antitrust claim alleging that the PageRank drop was designed to punish a competitor, but those claims went nowhere--and, in fact, the plaintiff's lawyer was ultimately sanctioned for making unsupportable claims in the complaint.
2) Person v. Google. This was a pro se lawsuit by a disgruntled Google advertiser who wasn't happy with his treatment by Google, so he brought an antitrust lawsuit against them. It wasn't a meritorious lawsuit from inception, but of particular interest is that in dismissing the case, Judge Fogel defined the relevant market for antitrust purposes as "Internet advertising," not "search advertising." There's no question Google is a dominant player in the search advertising market, but they are only a major player in the much larger Internet advertising market.
3) Langdon v. Google. This wasn't an antitrust case, but it stands for the proposition that search engines have the absolute right to reject ads in their discretion.
The combination of these three precedents shows that (A) most/all of TradeComet's complaints have been advanced before, and (B) they haven't gotten a favorable reception in court. Then again, all three of these rulings are from 2007, so it's possible that Google and the market have changed since then in ways that degrade Google's antitrust posture. Indeed, last year the DOJ said it was hours away from filing an antitrust lawsuit based on the Google-Yahoo deal, although I think it's easy to read too much into that situation. It is not uncommon for government enforcement agencies to take aggressive positions that may not reflect the law, and usually their targets back down rather than test those aggressive positions in court (just like Google did in the Yahoo transaction). So even if the DOJ took the position that the relevant market was search advertising, not Internet advertising, there is no guarantee that a court would have agreed with that position.
There is another troubling aspect of the TradeComet lawsuit. Google and other search engines have been repeatedly criticized for not doing enough to police their ads on a variety of dimensions, including allowing advertisers to hawk bogus products and distribute malware through their ads. We want--and expect--Google to police its advertisers. Google can do so in a variety of ways, including manual review of ads, but its pricing mechanisms and ad sorting algorithms (including its landing page quality score) provide an effective first-line of defense against ads that aren't useful to consumers. Therefore, it would be odd/dichotomous for antitrust law to conclude that Google's ad cleanup mechanisms are anti-competitive.
While I think this lawsuit is much more rehash/ennui than groundbreaking, there was one set of allegations that caught my eye. Check out Paragraphs 100 and 101, where TradeComet alleges that Google "relaxes its Landing Page Quality methodology for certain 'search partners'" such as Business.com. I'd sure like to know more about this allegation and the factual basis for it. If true, I imagine Google's advertiser community would be up in arms about this favoritism. However, I suspect that if Business.com and other search partners get seemingly premium ad placement, it's due to some consistently applied factor that measures an independent attribute that happens to correlate with attributes of Google's search partners.
AP Enforcement Action Against Syndicator Survives Dismissal Motion--AP v. All Headline News
By Eric Goldman
Associated Press v. All Headline News Corp., 08 Civ 323 (SDNY Feb. 17, 2009)
We've seen a lot of ruffled feathers over Internet republication of news headlines, ledes and snippets--the most recent being the GateHouse lawsuit and settlement, but we can easily go back at least a dozen years to the old Shetland Times lawsuit to find similar issues. Some of the teeth gnashing is due in part to the ambiguity and paucity of directly applicable law, so any new judicial ruling, even an opinion on a motion to dismiss, is noteworthy.
According to the opinion (which is a little cryptic), All Headline News either rewrites AP stories or copies stories in full, strips out the source identification in some cases, and republishes its version of the stories to a network of paying customers. To the extent All Headline News is a syndication service of real-time news, it appears to be at least a partial competitor of AP. AP alleged a number of claims against All Headline News, and this ruling addresses All Headline News' motion to dismiss the following complaints:
* Hot News. After concluding that All Headline News was subject to NY's law, it held that a hot news claim was properly pled. This makes sense in light of both the original INS v. AP case from 1918 (which addressed a not-dissimilar set of facts) and the more recent 1997 2nd Circuit Motorola case, which held that sports scores might be protectable under a hot news doctrine. While we have not seen a lot of viable hot news claims in the past dozen years, the hot news doctrine remains important because it exists independent of copyright. Accordingly, the republication of headlines and ledes could be a hot news misappropriation even if it isn't a copyright infringement. Because of the early procedural posture, the hot news claim might still fail, but the hot news doctrine's survival of the motion to dismiss isn't a favorable development for news aggregators and republishers.
* Copyright Management Information (17 USC 1202). We haven't seen much action under this portion of the DMCA, which protects against the removal or modification of "copyright management information" (such as a byline) from copyrighted works. It hasn't been extensively litigated, and the courts have interpreted the statute narrowly. Despite that, the court does not dismiss the claim. It will be interested to see if the AP can have any success with this claim given the narrow precedent supporting it.
* Trademark Infringement. The court dismisses the trademark infringement claim. The AP's pleading of both CMI violations and trademark infringement points to an interesting conundrum for content publishers/aggregators. Remove the source attribution and you create a potential 1202 problem. Preserve the source attribution and you might be committing trademark infringement. The court overcomes the damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't situation by implying that citing your sources can't be a trademark infringement.
* Unfair Competition. The court dismisses the 43(a) false advertising claims but preserves the common law unfair competition claim.
Implications. if, in fact, All Headline News is paraphrasing or plagiarising AP stories to operate a competing business, this is a materially different factual scenario than the aggregation and republication of headlines/ledes/snippets that has been the primary focus of Internet legal angst for the past few years. Nevertheless, revitalized doctrines of hot news and 1202 copyright management information both pose significant risks to these aggregation and republication activities independent of the copyright analysis. At minimum, this is a good reminder that focusing purely on copyright infringement claims misses other important considerations.
HT: Marty Schwimmer
UPDATE: Joe Mullin has some interesting things to say about the hot news doctrine and this lawsuit.
UPDATE 2: Jeff Neuburger's comments.
February 17, 2009
Google Street View Case Dismissed--Boring v. Google
By Eric Goldman
Boring v. Google, Inc., 2:08-cv-00694-ARH (W.D. Pa. Feb. 17, 2009)
You may recall the Boring case from last Spring. A Pennsylvania couple sued because Google's camera car drove up their private driveway and the resulting pictures were posted to Google's Street View. I thought the whole lawsuit was such a silly publicity stunt that I didn't think it was blog-worthy at the time. Apparently I'm not the only person who wasn't impressed with the suit, because the court didn't give the plaintiffs any benefit of the doubt and dismissed the lawsuit handily (without leave to amend).
Some highlights from the discussion:
Intrusion Into Seclusion. The court says that the plaintiffs did not allege facts supporting that the intrusion was substantial and highly offensive. To reinforce the point that perhaps the plaintiffs didn't experience much harm, the court points out that the plaintiffs didn't take advantage of Google's opt out procedure, plus they drew public attention to themselves by suing and by not redacting or suppressing their contact info in the court filings. I was a little troubled by the latter point, which seemed circular to me--plaintiffs bringing intrusion into seclusion lawsuits unavoidably thrust themselves into the public eye, whether they want to do so or not. This is especially true for anyone suing Google. As a result, it's not fair to hold that consequence against plaintiffs. (As an example of the unwanted publicity faced by privacy rights plaintiffs, consider Robert Steinbuch's experience as a plaintiff against Jessica Cutler). The court also skips over the legal nuances regarding why Google should get a free legal pass when it offers an opt out.
Public Disclosure of Private Facts. As with the intrusion into seclusion claim, the court says that the plaintiffs have not shown the disclosures were highly offensive to reasonable people, as evidenced by the fact that other people haven't opted out of Google's Street View. (An interesting argument on a 12b6).
Common Law Negligence. The court says Google didn't have a duty to the Borings, and it isn't willing to manufacture one.
Trespass. The court says that the plaintiffs' emotional damages were not proximately caused by the trespass.
Unjust Enrichment. The court (correctly, IMO) says that this is not an independent cause of action but is just a quasi-contract remedy.
Injunctive Relief. The court says that the plaintiffs failed to plead "a plausible claim for entitlement to injunctive relief." Which, I think, is one way of saying "not interested."
A clean sweep for Google, and the end (absent an appeal) of a silly lawsuit.
Affiliate Liability Talk Notes from SMX West
By Eric Goldman
Last week, I spoke for 10 minutes (actually, I took 12) at SMX West on the topic of advertiser liability for affiliates' actions. My talk notes:
Issue: when are advertisers liable for their affiliates’ behavior?
General rule: a company isn’t automatically liable for the acts of independent contractors.
Main exception: principal-agency liability. Principals are automatically liable for agent’s behavior within scope of agency. Agency can be express, implied or apparent. Generally, to form an agency, principals must control the agent’s behavior; an agency isn't formed merely by telling an independent contractor the desired results.
Application of general rule: Unless affiliates are agents, advertisers aren’t liable for their behavior, and most affiliates aren’t agents.
CAN-SPAM is a statutory exception to the general rule. State anti-spam laws may have similar statutory extensions.
15 USC 7705: Advertiser liability if advertiser (1) knew that affiliate is spamming, (2) is economic beneficiary of spam, and (3) doesn’t take reasonable steps to prevent or report.
Numerous advertisers have settled with the FTC based on the FTC’s theories of how to interpret this statute. However, the FTC's interpretations don’t have a great track record in court:
* U.S. v. Cyberheat, Inc., 2007 WL 686678 (D. Ariz. March 2, 2007). Government’s theory of strict liability for affiliate behavior rejected—liability requires advertisers’ knowledge and control of affiliate behavior.
* US v. Impulse Media. Government took Impulse Media’s liability for affiliate spam to a jury and lost.
Also, most civil plaintiffs have lost trying to hold advertisers liable for affiliate spam. See, e.g., Fenn v. Redmond Venture, Inc., 2004 UT App 355 (Utah Ct. App. Oct. 15, 2004); Hypertouch, Inc. v. Kennedy-Western University, No. 3:04-cv-05203-SI (N.D. Cal. Mar. 8, 2006); People v. Synergy6, Inc., Index No 404027/03 [Sup Ct N.Y. Co 2006]; ASIS Internet Services, v. Optin Global, Inc., 2008 WL 1902217 (N.D. Cal. March 27, 2008; unsealed April 29, 2008),
Other Types of Affiliate Liability
* Fraudulent ads prepared by affiliates. Florida's AG office has pursued mobile content ads, including those prepared by affiliates to promote the advertiser.
* Adware. The FTC and NYAG have taken expansive view of advertiser liability for running ads in adware. Indeed, based on these theories, the NYAG procured a settlement from Priceline, Travelocity, and Cingular Wireless in Jan. 2007 for $30-$35k each. But the NYAG’s expansive theories about affiliate installations of adware were soundly rejected in People v. Direct Revenue LLC, 2008 WL 1849855 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. March 12, 2008).
* Trademarks. In at least three cases, trademark owners have alleged that advertiser liable for trademark infringement due to affiliate behavior (such as affiliates bidding on trademark owner’s keywords). See DSW v. Zappos.com (S.D. Ohio complaint filed May 12, 2008); NameSafe v. LifeLock (M.D. Tenn. complaint filed June 26, 2008); Rosetta Stone v. Rocket Languages (C.D. Cal. complaint dated July 2, 2008). This is an unsettled area of trademark law. I think it should be analyzed as contributory trademark infringement, which probably would result in no liability for advertisers. As a point of comparison, advertisers are not liable for ads appearing on a site that infringes trademarks. See Fare Deals v. World Choice Travel.com case, 180 F. Supp. 2d 678 (D. Md. 2001),
Other Consequences of Affiliate Liability
Even if advertiser isn’t liable for affiliate’s behavior, advertiser-affiliate relationship may still create problems:
* NY sales tax collection obligation. NY Tax Law Section 1101(b)(8)(vi) enacted April 2008 says:
a person making sales of tangible personal property or services taxable under this article ("seller") shall be presumed to be soliciting business through an independent contractor or other representative if the seller enters into an agreement with a resident of this state under which the resident, for a commission or other consideration, directly or indirectly refers potential customers, whether by a link on an internet website or otherwise, to the seller, if the cumulative gross receipts from sales by the seller to customers in the state who are referred to the seller by all residents with this type of an agreement with the seller is in excess of ten thousand dollars during the preceding four quarterly periods
Legal challenge to the statute: Amazon and Overstock v. NY, decided Jan. 12, 2009. The court upheld the statute against dormant commerce clause, due process and equal protection claims. I think this is a goofy ruling.
Implications of the NY Sales Tax law:
1) If upheld, other states undoubtedly will adopt the same model.
2) Web retailers will either double-down on affiliate programs or kill them (Overstock killed its NY affiliates).
3) This may be the effective death knell for retailer-sponsored online affiliate programs, which could have a significant consequence on the Internet advertising community.
* Competition with affiliates for AdWords/organic placement.
* Public opinion, including FTC shaming, adverse media coverage, and disgruntled consumers.
Best Practices for Advertisers
1) Advertisers' affiliate contracts should prohibit ads in spam, adware, etc. This has successfully cut off advertiser liability in several cases (Fenn, Hypertouch, Impulse Media, Synergy6)
2) Affiliate contract should restrict the affiliates' keyword ad practices. Note, however, the more the affiliate contract controls affiliate behavior, the greater the risk that a court will misinterpret the contract to form an agency relationship.
3) Escrowed/delayed payments are the best way to minimize affiliate fraud and manage contract compliance. It's rare for advertisers to bring lawsuits against affiliates (e.g., Land’s End v. Remy, eBay v. Digital Point Solutions). The best way to curb bad affiliates is to keep dollars out of their pockets.
4) Advertisers must actually police affiliate behavior
5) Especially in light of NY tax law, advertisers must do a cost-benefit analysis of affiliate programs. Are they net-profitable, after considering all of the costs? The answer may surprise you.
For more reading on this topic, see my lengthy article from last year, Affiliate Liability Extravaganza.
February 16, 2009
Yahoo/Overture Sued for Search Results Snippets Containing Plaintiff's Name--Stayart v. Yahoo
By Eric Goldman
Bev Stayart appears to be proud of her accomplishments. As the complaint recounts her credentials, we are informed that she has an MBA in finance, was a VP at an unnamed financial institution, is passionate about animals, participates in an online discussion forum where her "scholarly" posts have generated 17,000 hits in three years, and has written two poems about protecting seals that were published on Danish websites. I'm not quite sure exactly what we are supposed to glean from these facts, but if they are designed to establish that she has had a life-well-lived, then we might extend her some kudos for that. These facts--IMO, much less compellingly--also apparently support her allegation (para. 21) that her name has commercial value because of "her humanitarian endeavors, positive and wholesome image, and the popularity of her scholarly posts on the Internet." If 17,000 hits in three years creates commercial value in the author's name, then the Internet is filled with rock stars!
Perhaps more remarkable is that Bev Stayart claims she is the only "Bev Stayart" and "Beverly Stayart" on the Internet (para. 19), and it appears that she would like to keep it that way. Thus, she is seemingly taking the position that any reference to "Bev Stayart" and "Beverly Stayart" on the Internet must be referring to her and only her. That would be a neat trick if true because it could give her exclusionary power over every Internet reference containing those names, but I would be shocked if there is and has been only one Bev/Beverly Stayart in the entire world.
It's a little unclear from the complaint exactly what's going on to make Bev Stayart unhappy, but it looks like she ran into some cloaked search engine spam pages that referenced her name. For example, she searched for "Beverly Stayart" in Yahoo and got the following search result out of a total of 7 unique search results (surprisingly small number for a person with commercial value in their name):
Pm 10 kb Loading Cialas -- Online Pharmacy
Pm 10kb loading cialas january th, at: pm hi friends i met you
in the tim horton s on bloor st a few Sundays ago I ... on february
bev stayart on march th ...
Incredibly, she then clicked on this search result (whoa!) and was taken to a page on mysharedvideo.com which had her name centered in a darkened movie screen and ultimately played an adult video. Her Norton software went crazy on the page (surprise!), suggesting malware was on the page.
She subsequently tried the same search (in both Yahoo and AltaVista) multiple times and got the same search results each time, which took her to other similar websites that all promoted adult entertainment. She also tried some searches with her name plus an erectile dysfunction drug's brand name and got similar results. Finally, she clicked on the .cn domain name in the search result (bold!) multiple times and was apparently taken to some type of splog pages. The fact that she repeated this search and clicked on the search results many times suggests a rare combination of self-interest and amazing--and undoubtedly unwarranted--confidence in her Norton software.
(Various is a defendant because it showed up as a result in the "related searches" feature of AltaVista and apparently provided spam pages that contain her name in the page title and post-domain URL).
Based on the foregoing, she alleges that Yahoo and Overture's display of the false snippets constituted Lanham Act false endorsement and false designation of origin and violation of Wisconsin's publicity rights statute and common law privacy rights.
There are two obvious problems with the lawsuit against Yahoo and Overture. First, if there is or has been even one other Bev or Beverly Stayart in the world, the plaintiff has a real problem proving that the online references were to her and not the other person. And, with all due respect to Ms. Stayart's lifetime of accomplishments, it would be ridiculous for her to argue that her name is so well-recognized that readers would assume that the references were to her instead of other folks with a common name.
The other major problem is 47 USC 230. Per 230, Yahoo and Overture are not liable for creating snippets of third party content, even if they create a false impression. See, e.g., Maughan v. Google and Murawski v. Pataki. Nevertheless, 230 is not a perfect defense because these claims are close to being "intellectual property claims" that would drop out of 230 coverage in some places. Lanham Act trademark claims are unquestionably IP claims, although I personally think Lanham Act false advertising claims are not. See, e.g., the Kruska case. Even so, irrespective of 230, I think the recent Heartbrand Beef v. Lobel's case suggests that search engines may not be liable for false designation of origin simply by presenting third party content.
Similarly, the WI publicity rights statute might be preempted by 230 even though there is more unanimity that publicity rights are IP; compare ccBill (preempted) and Friendfinder (not preempted). The common law right of privacy claim is almost certainly preempted by 230 in all jurisdictions.
One last tidbit that may help contextualize this case. Bev Stayart appears to be "CFO and Director of Business Development" for Stayart Law Offices, and her co-worker (and family relation?) Gregory A. Stayart is the lawyer in the case. (I had difficulty finding enough info about Gregory or the Stayart Law Offices to clarify the connection; that may have something to do with the fact that Gregory isn't licensed to practice law in Wisconsin). Sorry for the snarkiness, but I guess this is one way for Ms. Stayart to develop a law firm's business, especially in a down market like this.
[A favor: please take a look at the search results for "Stayart Law Offices" and let me know what might explain the widespread redundant distribution of Bev Stayart's resume information at mulitple no-name services. Is this what a typical reputation management campaign produces?]
February 13, 2009
Yahoo's Sale of Competitive Keyword Ads Isn't False Designation of Origin--Heartbrand Beef v. Lobel's
By Eric Goldman
Heartbrand Beef, Inc. v. Lobel's of New York, LLC, 2009 WL 311087 (S.D.Tex. Feb. 5, 2009). The Justia page.
Heartbrand sells Akaushi beef, a special and very expensive Japanese variety of beef. Heartbrand brought an enforcement action against several defendants, including Yahoo for selling a retailer, Lobel's, the first ad position for the keyword "Akaushi." Lobel's sells very expensive beef but not Akaushi beef. Heartbrand alleged that Yahoo's display of the ad constituted Lanham Act false designation of origin and common law unfair competition. I suspect that other plaintiffs have alleged that the search engine makes a false designation of origin by presenting keyword ads, but I can't recall an actual ruling on this issue before.
From my perspective, the natural analytical approach would be to assume the advertiser makes the false designation of origin and then consider Yahoo's liability under some kind of "contributory" or "derivative" false designation claim (if such a thing exists). However, stated this way, the claim then should be preempted by 47 USC 230; other cases have concluded that 47 USC 230 preempts non-trademark portions of the Lanham Act. See, e.g., Kruska v. Perverted Justice Foundation Inc. But see Doe v. Friendfinder.
The court sidesteps this direct-v.-contributory issue entirely, even though it acknowledges that Heartbrand's claim doesn't make sense because "Yahoo! obviously does not fit into these classic models [of false designation of origin] because Yahoo! is not in the business of selling beef." Instead, the court rejects the false designation claim because (1) Yahoo doesn't make any "statement" (the advertiser does), and (2) even if Yahoo does make a statement, it's not designating the origin of Yahoo's offerings.
This case reminded me of the Overstock v. SmartBargains opinion from last August, where the Utah Supreme Court said that trademark-triggered competitive pop-up ads do not constitute common law unfair competition or tortious interference. (Note that in that case, the defendant was the ad buyer, not the ad seller, so there is a significant factual difference). In both the Overstock case and this one, the courts rejected plaintiffs' efforts to fit their claims in doctrines that are ancillary to the more traditional trademark infringement claim. In that respect, this case helps channel the lawsuits back to trademark infringement and might help curb claim sprawl.
Ryan Gile has also blogged on the case.
UPDATE: Rebecca weighs in.
February 06, 2009
2008 Cyberlaw Year-in-Review
By Eric Goldman
It's a sign of my schedule that I'm just now getting to this, and this post will be more pithy than I initially conceived. This post recaps some of the Cyberlaw highlights from last year. Frankly, the two biggest stories of 2008 were the financial markets meltdown and the ascension of President Obama, neither of which have a lot of Cyberlaw angles. In light of those big developments, Cyberlaw in 2008 was comparatively quiet. However, there is still plenty of interesting developments to revisit.
A few broad themes emerged last year:
* Ludicrous trademark claims. 2008 hardly had a monopoly on dumb trademark claims; those are perennial. But 2008 certainly saw some asinine entries, including putative Cyberlawyer Eric Menhart's claim to own a trademark in the term "Cyberlaw," Jones Day's efforts to claim that a web page referencing its name as the employer of some homebuyers violated its trademark rights, and putative Cyberlawyer John Dozier's claim that if his name is used as anchor text, the link must go to his website or it violates his trademark right.
* This was a good year for expansive readings and applications of user agreements. Some examples:
- the Lori Drew prosecution, where Lori was convicted of violating an agreement that someone else clicked through.
- Jacobsen v. Katzer, where a user of copyrighted material is bound by a contract that he/she never clicked through at all.
- AV v. iParadigms, where kids were not allowed to void a user agreement despite their status as minors (and despite the fact that some of them had no meaningful choice about whether or not to consent).
- JuicyCampus enforcement action, where the New Jersey Attorney General's office tried to treat a negative user behavioral restriction in a user agreement as an affirmative marketing representation that such user behavior would not occur on the site.
* One of the long-standing Cyberlaw memes is that websites must either be passive conduits to avoid liability or active editors to manage their liability, but if a website chooses the latter, the website is liable for any editorial mistakes. That is, if the website edits its site but misses something, it's fully liable for what it missed. This simply isn't true under 47 USC 230, which allows websites to choose to be passive, active or anything in between without varying liability. In the IP context, this passive v. active meme has had more traction, but 2008 saw two solid cases suggesting that if a website tries to police its premises and fails, courts will be sympathetic and excuse any omissions. Example #1: Tiffany v. eBay, where the court gave eBay extra credit for its VeRO program as a basis to excuse any counterfeit goods that slip through. Example #2: Io v. Veoh, where the court was more willing to excuse Veoh because it had undertaken extra policing efforts than was required for the 17 USC 512 safe harbor. Finally, although not an IP case, the court in Cisneros v. Yahoo also lauded search engines for their affirmative efforts to block gambling ads, which the court acknowledged was a hard challenge.
* Despite some adverse rulings early in the year, punctuated by the Ninth Circuit's en banc ruling in Roommates.com, the 47 USC 230 immunization is still extremely robust. We saw a number of expansive and pro-defense rulings per 230 throughout the year, including Craigslist, Doe v. MySpace, Cisneros v. Yahoo and Goddard v. Google. Perhaps more importantly, in the three 230 cases I've seen since Roommates.com that cited to the opinion, all three cited the opinion in ruling for the defense.
* Battles over keyword advertising are hardly over, even though Utah officially backed off its attempt to ban them. The ABA IP Section tried to get into the act, and American Airlines sued Google, settled, and then sued Yahoo.
Top 11 Cyberlaw Developments of 2008
#11: Utah Trademark Protection Act repealed. The Utah Trademark Protection Act had the potential to throw the entire keyword advertising business into turmoil. Instead, now that it's repealed, it just remains as a dramatic reminder of the Utah legislature's incompetence regarding Internet legislation.
# 9 and 10: Fair Housing Council v. Roommates.com and Goddard v. Google. The Roommates.com en banc opinion makes the list based mostly on its potential consequences, not its actual effect. It remains one of the most significant pro-plaintiff incursions into the solidly defense-favorable interpretations of 47 USC 230, but it's so riddled with contradictory and ambiguous language that no one really knows what to do with it. I think Judge Fogel's reading of the case in Goddard v. Google has the potential to become the defining interpretation of the case, and his solidly defense-favorable reading of the precedent in excusing Google for ads placed by its advertisers may only reinforce how little Roommates.com changed the law.
#8: AV v. iParadigms. This case was a terrific win for online fair use enthusiasts because the for-profit commercialization of a database of third party copyrighted works was still deemed fair use. The upholding of the contract against the minors forced to enter into it was also significant. Before this ruling, my assumption is that any plaintiff trying to form a class action lawsuit in the face of an adverse user agreement could always form the class on behalf of any minors who had the right to void the contract. This case seems to shut down that loophole in user agreement protection.
#7: Io v. Veoh. The 17 USC 512(c) safe harbor has been law for over a decade and has produced a couple dozen rulings, but few are cleaner and more decisive for the defense than this one. It was a textbook example of a court rejecting the many different arguments plaintiffs make to kick a defendant out of the safe harbor, and as mentioned before, it was a great validation for Veoh's decision to do more than 512 required.
#6: Jacobsen v. Katzer. From a doctrinal standpoint, this case raises really difficult questions about how a copyright consumer can be bound to terms that he/she never "assented" to. Even so, this case had huge implications because it effectively validated that open source licenses can be binding on licensees, giving much more legal credibility to the entire multi-billion open source software industry. However, an odd footnote: on remand, the district court denied an injunction for the plaintiff, raising more issues about what exactly the plaintiff won at the Federal Circuit.
#5: Tiffany v. eBay. A fantastic validation of eBay's practices against a very serious and sympathetic challenger who had plenty of evidence that counterfeit goods were being sold on eBay's site. The case also shows that courts can grow tired of IP owners simply making up their own rules about how online sites should protect them and then suing the sites for breaching these artificial rules.
#4: Mazur v. eBay. A more scary case to 47 USC 230 defense enthusiasts than the Roommates.com opinion. The court says that eBay isn't protected by 230 for some of the marketing representations it makes, even if those representations are rendered untrue by third parties. While this makes a lot of doctrinal sense, it is also a green light for plaintiffs to mine a website's marketing representations as a way to bypass the otherwise-fatal consequences of 230 on a lawsuit triggered by user behavior or content.
#3: Google Book Search settlement. This makes the list for two independent reasons. First, many folks were hoping the case would establish solid precedent on online fair use, and the settlement ended that hope. Second, the proposed Book Rights Registry has the potential to reshape a number of major industries, including the book publishing business, the book retailing industry and the library industry.
#2: the Lori Drew prosecution. I think this may have been the most polarizing Cyberlaw development of 2008, exposing deep divides in people's appetite for punishing bad conduct online. It's hard to assess the overall implications of her conviction because no one rallied to praise Lori Drew's choices, and her case is still a ways from a final legal outcome. However, the possible implications of the case were so complex that it took a special three part series for me to explore its nuances (1, 2, 3).
#1: Cartoon Network v. CSC (the "Cablevision" case). Boy, the more I think about this case, the more important it becomes. The case upends our assumption that if we see it online, it's fixed, creating a new class of unfixed electronic works. Also, the court treats the users, not the service, as making the requisite copies, which reinforces the possibility that online providers can be just "dumb technology providers" for copyright law purposes and reinvigorates the possible defense that a service provider's copying is just done as a proxy for its users. However, the Supreme Court's ambiguous response to the cert petition--not yes, not no, but a request to the Solicitor General for comments--leaves this decision in a precarious position.
Other Developments of Special Note
47 USC 230
* Doe v. MySpace. The Fifth Circuit soundly rejects the argument that MySpace had an obligation to police its “premises.”
* Craigslist. Judge Easterbrook's language in Doe v. GTE had given plaintiffs some hope that the Seventh Circuit would provide a friendly venue to plaintiffs trying to overcome 47 USC 230. Judge Easterbrook may still love his language (which he quoted extensively in the Craigslist ruling), but his practical and no-nonsense ruling for the defense squelches the hope that the Seventh Circuit will become a plaintiff's haven.
* New Jersey's enforcement action against JuicyCampus. State AG offices HATE 47 USC 230.
* Impulse Media. A jury thumped the FTC's overly expansive views of affiliate liability for spam.
* NY v. Direct Revenue. A state judge emphatically rejected the NY AG's office's expansive views of affiliate liability for adware.
* American Airlines' lawsuits against Google and Yahoo. No one I know fully understands why American Airlines sued Google for selling its trademarks for keyword ads. No one I know understands what concessions Google gave to American Airlines to settle the case. And no one I know understands why American Airlines decided to sue Yahoo after procuring the Google settlement. It's all a big mystery.
* NSI's grabbing of domain names in response to WHOIS queries. Is there any better example of ICANN's failings to police domain name retailers than to have one retailer selling a scarce good grabbing the good exclusively (blocking attempted sales by all other retailers) when a customer merely inquires about it?
* Kentucky's attempted seizure of 141 gambling-related domain names. As I wrote before, "Is a domain name property? Yes. See the Sex.com case. Can a plaintiff seize a domain name pursuant to a favorable judgment? Yes. Is it appropriate for Kentucky to seize domain names for gambling websites available in Kentucky? Of course not, because this would effectuate an extraterritorial reach by curtailing non-Kentucky residents from making possibly legal uses of the domain name."
* Eric Menhart, a lawyer who claims to practice Cyberlaw, doesn't know that Cyberlaw is a generic term.
* New gTLDs. Maybe I should reserve this development for 2009...if it happens.
* McCain complains about 512(c)(3) notices taking down his YouTube videos. Surprise! 512(c)(3) notices are unforgiving. Sen. McCain, now that you've had a first-hand taste of their power, maybe you'd like to revisit the statute to see if it's producing the right incentives?
* FCC's bust of Comcast. The pro-regulatory forces were queued up to pounce on any examples where an IAP violated Net Neutrality principles, and Comcast's chicanery in forging reset packets was impossible for anyone to defend.
* NebuAd's flameout. Behavioral ad targeting is in our future unless regulators stop it. NebuAd won't be the winning provider of targeting services, but legislators will keep trying to regulate it further out of existence nonetheless.
Posted by Eric at 05:50 PM | Adware/Spyware , Copyright , Derivative Liability , Domain Names , E-Commerce , Internet History , Licensing/Contracts , Marketing , Publicity/Privacy Rights , Search Engines , Spam , Trademark | TrackBack
February 05, 2009
Publisher Promising "Visitors" Owes "Visitors," Not "Unique Visitors"--WebMD v. RDA
By Eric Goldman
WebMD, LLC v. RDA Intern., Inc., 2009 WL 175036 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. Jan. 6, 2009)
It's been a while since I've blogged about a lawsuit between an Internet publisher and advertiser, so you may enjoy this one. RDA placed a series of advertising orders with WebMD, including one order where WebMD promised "36,000 visitors" to an RDA website. RDA eventually stiffed WebMD to the tune of $350k, which is enough outstanding cash to get WebMD into court for a collections action. Once there, RDA argued that WebMD failed to perform the contract because the contract required 36,000 unique visitors and WebMD only delivered 70-80% of this number.
Most of us in the Internet advertising business immediately scoff at RDA's argument. Everyone in our industry knows that "visitors" and "unique visitors" are two very different things, and that if the parties actually meant "unique visitors," they would have said so. The court efficiently reaches this conclusion as well, saying that the term "visitors" is unambiguous and "If defendant wished to be guaranteed “unique visitors” to the site, it should have specified such in the agreement." Even if the term were ambiguous, the court still isn't sympathetic, in part because the advertiser never complained about the invoices while the parties were still in a relationship. (And, as we know, advertisers will complain if they think the deal isn't performing to their expectations!!!)
Two practice pointers from the case. First, it's critical to precisely define the metric for computing payment in advertising contracts. Often, when I'm asked to look at Internet ad contracts, I'm sent the T&Cs but not the actual IO where the payment metric for the particular ad deal is specified. That's one of the most important aspects of an ad contract, so as a lawyer, we really need to get our hands on the IO business terms in addition to the T&Cs. Second, the opinion doesn't mention any clause in the WebMD contract that WebMD's numbers control for calculation purposes. (The clause might have been in the contract, but it wasn't referenced in the opinion). Even if the court won't enforce those clauses verbatim, they can still be extraordinarily helpful in tipping any ambiguities in favor of the publisher and against the advertiser when the parties dispute the numbers.
February 04, 2009
Online Retailer's Link to House Brand from Manufacturer's Product Page Might Infringe--BabyAge v. Leachco
By Eric Goldman
Welcome to the cutthroat world of pregnancy pillows. Leachco manufactures pregnancy pillows and has a patent on them. BabyAge is an online retailer of baby and maternity goods and sells pregnancy pillows, including Leachco's pillows as well as the "Cozy Comfort," BabyAge's house-branded pillow.
Leachco asserted patent and trademark claims against BabyAge for the Cozy Comfort. The patent claims get tossed on summary judgment.
The trademark claim is based on the fact that BabyAge creates "featured brand" web pages for each manufacturer it carries. (See the current page, although the relevant action was before 2007). This featured brand page contained a "pregnancy pillows" section that had a 200 word narrative educating consumers about pregnancy pillows and informing them of two competitive brands--the Cozy Comfort and another brand. Each of these brand references included a hyperlink to the product page for those pillows. Leachco's brands weren't mentioned in the narrative at all.
Leachco argued that this narrative constituted a "bait and switch" because the Leachco brand lured consumers to the featured brand page, where they were then redirected to these competitive brands. The court conceptualizes this as initial interest confusion. After running through the multi-factor likelihood of consumer confusion test irresolutely, the court denies summary judgment to BabyAge on the trademark infringement claim.
The possibility of BabyAge being liable for the featured brand page is ludicrous for at least three reasons:
1) BabyAge should be protected under the First Sale doctrine for using the Leachco brand in the featured brand page. (Surprisingly, First Sale wasn't mentioned in the opinion at all). Due to the First Sale doctrine, BabyAge is allowed to advertise that it sells Leachco products, which it did. The advertisement does not have to be exclusively for Leachco products, any more than a grocery store does not need to feature only one brand in any particular ad.
2) There is no possibility of "real" consumer confusion. The 200 word narrative is entirely clear that the pillows being discussed are not from Leachco; and any consumer investigating the linked product pages will be even more clear about the distinction. Thus, the only possible confusion is any initial interest confusion (whatever that means) that occurred before reading the narrative...but since the narrative self-corrects any confusion, where is the harm at all?
3) As I discuss in my Brand Spillovers paper, this looks like cyberspace exceptionalism. Offline retailers create these types of multi-brand product adjacencies all the time. As just one example, a retailer may have a dedicated area for a single brand (such as the clothing area of a department store), but there may be placards or signage in that area that inform consumers of other options, or there may be a salesperson assigned to the area who might orally inform consumers of other options. The signage or salesperson communications not only aren't trademark infringement (initial interest confusion or otherwise), but (as evidenced by the complete lack of cases making such arguments) it would never occur to most trademark owners that they might sue the retailer for this "bait-and-switch." Yet, somehow, when the signage and product information is all digital, suddenly consumers now might be bait-and-switched. Huh? As my Brand Spillovers paper explains, this is both doctrinally wrong and potentially detrimental to consumer search costs.
February 03, 2009
Social Networking Sites and Blogs Talk for Students
By Eric Goldman
Today I gave a talk entitled "Social Networking Sites and Blogs" for the on-campus Student Intellectual Property Law Association (SIPLA). My slides. In conjunction with this, I thought it might be useful to organize a bibliography of my previous postings and materials on these topics.
* Steinbuch v. Cutler: New Lawsuit Over Blogging--Steinbuch v. Cutler, Steinbuch v. Cutler Update--Cutler's Motion to Dismiss, Steinbuch v. Cutler Update, Steinbuch v. Culter Update: Cox Out, Cutler Bankrupt, Steinbuch's Second Battlefront Against Cutler Shut Down
Social Networking Sites Generally
* Lori Drew Conviction Reflections Parts 1, 2 and 3. See also Lori Drew Prosecuted for CFAA Violations--Some Comments, and a Practice Pointer
Other Social Networking Sites