Buying Personal Names for Keyword Ads Isn’t a Publicity Rights Violation–Habush v. Cannon

By Eric Goldman

Habush v. Cannon, 09-CV-18149 (Wis. Cir. Ct. June 8, 2011). The June 2010 denial of the motion to dismiss. A good overview article from when the complaint was filed.

Introduction

A Wisconsin court has said that a keyword advertiser didn’t violate publicity rights by buying a person’s name for keyword advertising. Although the propriety of keyword advertising on a third party trademark has been hotly contested since at least 2004, I believe this is the first ruling addressing the publicity rights issue.

The legal novelty of the ruling makes it an important early precedent, but the opinion is not especially persuasive. To me, the judge seemed overwhelmed by both the challenging legal doctrines and technology at issue in this case. In response, the judge issued one of the most citation-free opinions of its length that I have ever seen. This is not a scholarly opinion, and that makes less likely to influence other courts. It also means that an appellate court will likely give this opinion relatively low deference.

The fact that the court dismissed the lawsuit is, on its face, good news for both search engines and advertisers. However, I thought the judge’s arguments were questionable and, at least at one crucial juncture, internally inconsistent. The ruling turned on a specific word in the Wisconsin publicity rights statute, and courts applying other statutes can easily distinguish this opinion if they want to rule for the plaintiffs. Therefore, this ruling could morph from a defense win into a plaintiff’s friend depending on how future courts rely on and interpret it.

Facts

The case involves two of the highest profile and most successful personal injury law firms in Wisconsin. The defendants bought two of their competitors’ last names (“Habush” and “Rottier”) for keyword ads at Google, Bing and Yahoo, in some cases bidding enough to ensure the first ad position. The ad copy didn’t display those last names.

The plaintiffs sought an injunction. However, in that sense, the plaintiffs may have gotten a de facto extrajudicial win. It appears the defendants have stopped the ad campaign. Neither the court nor I could replicate the ads any more.

The Prima Facie Case

The court holds that the keyword ad buys satisfied the prima facie elements of a publicity rights claim but one. Among other arguments, the defendants argued it didn’t “use” the name “for advertising purposes or purposes of trade.” This argument recalls the old and loquacious trademark battles over what constitutes a “use in commerce.” The non-”use” defense doesn’t get any more traction here than it did in the trademark cases. The court thinks it’s irrelevant that the “use” is invisible to consumers: “the simple, plain English meaning of the word ‘use’ certainly includes the purchase of a name to trigger results from a computer algorithm.” Thus, the court concludes:

the defendants used plaintiffs‘ names for advertising and trade purposes without the plaintiffs‘ consent. Thus, plaintiffs have established that, under Wis. Stat. § 995.50, defendants invaded their privacy.

“Unreasonably”

It looks like the plaintiffs are home free. But then, the court says that the plaintiffs must also show that the defendant’s use was “unreasonable.” This appears to have been a contentious battle over the prima facie requirements; see lengthy FN9 and this transcript from March 2010.

The court then explains why a “privacy invasion” by buying keywords ads was reasonable in this case, including:

* positioning keyword ads by organic results is analogous to competitive adjacencies, such as competitors locating their stores next to each other and advertisers bidding against each other for prime positions in Yellow Pages. In the trademark context, I thoroughly examined these arguments in my uncited Brand Spillovers article. The judge sees the defendant lawyers’ ad buys as “energetic business competition.” Kudos to the judge for recognizing that keyword ads are usurping lawyers’ Yellow Pages ads.

* the specific names here (Habush and Rottier) are part of their law firm’s name, and the court says their publicity rights effectively merge with the firm’s trademark. In other words, a person searching for “Habush” might be looking for the firm, not the lawyer, and it’s impossible to separate those searcher motivations.

* users aren’t confused by keyword ads (nor did the plaintiffs show any confused consumers), consumers scan the results page to find what they are looking for, and any confusion they experience will be brief (no acknowledgement of the abominable initial interest confusion doctrine). Further, “Internet users, and consumers in general, have learned to be skeptical about the first impression they may receive from a web page or commercial advertisement.” If only that were unequivocally true!

* search engines are evolving, and the court can’t figure out what an injunction would look like given how search engine user interfaces might change.

* no attorney ethics rules have banned these keyword advertising practice.

All of these are interesting and meritorious public policy considerations. None of them got any meaningful empirical or legal precedent support for the judge’s arguments. An appeals court will feel free to substitute their own considerations for the judge’s proffered rationales.

Also, notice the problem with this court’s solution. Other publicity rights statutes may not have the word “unreasonable” in their statutory language, and common law publicity rights doctrines may not require “unreasonableness” either. As a result, where the publicity rights doctrine doesn’t require defendants to engage in “unreasonable” usage, this ruling says pretty clearly that competitively buying a person’s name is a publicity rights violation—in other words, what could be a clean win for the plaintiffs. I don’t think this judge intends that result, but it’s the implications of the judge’s doctrinal solution.

Defenses

The court rejected the unclean hands defense. It appears that the plaintiffs’ firm had bought category ads in some Yellow Pages sites, which caused their ads to show up on the defendants’ firm listings in those categories. The court logically distinguishes category ads from keyword ads, though the 9th Circuit’s Playboy v. Netscape panel treated them as equivalent.

The court also rejected a First Amendment defense because buying keyword ads is conduct, not speech: “This lawsuit involves the hidden process which causes the link to appear at all. That process is content neutral. It is not information; nor is it a message of any sort. It is not speech, commercial or otherwise.”

What??? First, the court ahistorically ignores the 1990s-era rulings about encryption software and the First Amendment. Second, I believe this is internally inconsistent with the court’s conclusion that the publicity rights statute applies to invisible activity (i.e., a use of a person’s name that a consumer never sees). The court seems to be saying that conduct without speech can constitute a publicity rights violation, and I don’t see how that’s possible. My position is that publicity rights violations necessarily require the defendant to engage in speech; so conduct without speech can never satisfy the statutory requirements.

Implications

This opinion got to the right result, but its reasoning is shaky and the opinion was poorly constructed and inadequately cited. The plaintiffs have already vowed to appeal—a fact the judge anticipated as you can see in the March 10, 2010 transcript. (After all, litigators litigate—and good litigators savor the challenge). Given the opinion’s weakness, I would be surprised if the appellate court relied very heavily on this opinion’s analysis. However, I hope the appellate court recognizes that the judge’s policy concerns were spot-on and finds a way to respect those concerns.

I can’t take the lead on an amicus brief in the appeal, but I would be interested in actively supporting the effort. Contact me if you would be interested in working together on one.

Irrespective of what happens on appeal, I can’t imagine this opinion will be the last word on publicity rights and keyword advertising. If you are looking for a paper topic, I think that issue offers a few promising angles to explore.

Finally, this opinion complements the uncited Stayart v. Google, which also involved alleged violations of Wisconsin’s publicity rights statute and ended in favor of the defense. The Stayart v. Yahoo 7th Circuit opinion turned on the Lanham Act, but it too is relevant. I don’t have a good explanation why Wisconsans are trail-blazing litigation over search engine use of their names.