Yahoo’s Search Results Snippets Aren’t False Endorsement–Stayart v. Yahoo

By Eric Goldman

Stayart v. Yahoo! Inc., 2009 WL 2840478 (E.D. Wis. Aug. 28, 2009)

Earlier this year, I blogged about Beverly Stayart’s quixotic lawsuit against Yahoo and others for showing search results snippets that contained her name adjacent to spammy porn and adult content links. Last month, the court efficiently dismissed her federal Lanham Act “false endorsement” claims and then dismissed the remainder of her lawsuit on procedural grounds, allowing Stayart to refile those claims in state court if she chooses. (She shouldn’t but she probably will). The court rejected Stayart’s Lanham Act false endorsement claim on three different grounds.

Commerciality

The court says that Stayart has not made adequate efforts to commercialize her name sufficient to give her standing for a Lanham Act claim. I agree with the court’s factual assessment. Although Stayart alleged that she has been an active participant in online communities, she hasn’t done anything to commercialize her name. Stated differently, if Stayart has standing under the Lanham Act’s false endorsement provisions, then just about everyone in the world would.

Confusion

The court rejects any likelihood of consumer confusion. I don’t particularly like the court’s reasoning, which seems to be that since Stayart has lived a squeaky clean life, no one would believe that she could be associated with the seedier activity promoted in the spammy links. This reasoning seems completely inconsistent with the nature of gossip. Nevertheless, the court is completely right when it says “No one who accessed these [spammy] links could reasonably conclude that Bev Stayart endorsed the products at issue.” I think this is true because the spammy links lack internal credibility enough for anyone to believe them at all.

With respect to Various, the defendant whose adult website was advertised at some of the spammy links, Stayart argued initial interest confusion because people interested in her might be induced to click on the spammy links. The court rejects the argument by saying “The type of person looking for information about Bev Stayart would not be fooled into using an online adult-oriented dating website.” I’m not sure why the court thinks this is true; people have all sorts of “hidden interests.” Nevertheless, I’d like to think no prudent person would be fooled into clicking on spammy porn links in a search engine, even if it referenced Stayart’s name.

47 USC 230

The court’s discussion up to this point has some odd reasoning, but the 47 USC 230 discussion is quite bizarre. The court’s conclusion is that “Yahoo! should be entitled to immunity because it acted as an interactive computer service, even though Stayart’s claims are nominal intellectual property claims….Immunizing Yahoo! from Stayart’s claims would not limit the laws pertaining to intellectual property because Stayart does not state a valid intellectual property claim.”

What? Is the court saying that it doesn’t need to discuss 230 because Stayart failed to state a valid IP claim, or is the court saying that Yahoo qualifies for the 230 immunity because doing so would be consistent with 230′s policies–even if the court has to ignore 230′s statutory exclusion for IP claims? The court could have found a role for 230 by concluding that the Lanham Act false endorsement claim wasn’t really an IP claim at all, any more than a Lanham Act false advertising claim is an IP claim, but I don’t think the court said that.

So I’m not sure what the 230 references means, and I personally think the court would have been better off not discussing 230 at all. (As Rebecca writes, the whole 230 digression was “obviously useless.”) At minimum, I don’t think it would be accurate to say that this court found a 230 defense to a federal IP claim. As a result, I’m filing this case in the bucket of “not very interesting” 230 cases.

Note: we already knew that 230 protects search engines from liability for their search results snippets when IP claims aren’t involved. See, e.g., Maughan v. Google and Murawski v. Pataki. A British court also reached the same result on common law grounds. See the Metropolitan International Schools case.

Conclusion

The court denies Various’ 230 defense because its association with the banner ad was unclear. Having dismissed the federal Lanham Act claims completely, the court then declines supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims. The court also rejects Stayart’s guffaw-inducing request for sanctions against the defendants for having the temerity of moving to dismiss her complaint.

I’m glad to see Stayart’s lawsuit quickly dismissed. It was a ridiculous lawsuit from inception. At the same time, the court’s corner-cutting leaves me lamenting the absence of better doctrines to deter junk lawsuits like this in the first place. It’s actually can be tricky to say that any trademark complaint is “wrong” given how much doctrinal contortions some courts have indulged in–even when lawsuits like this are so clearly wrong.

More comments on the case: Rebecca Tushnet, Mike Masnick (who has had first-hand dealings with Stayart) and Ars Technica