November 22, 2011
Court Awards Damages for Wrongful Disruption of Web Presence -- Ordonez v. Icon Sky Holdings
[Post by Venkat Balasubramani]
Ordonez v. Icon Sky Holdings LLC, 10-cv-60156-PAS (S.D. Fla. Aug. 30, 2011)
This was another dispute involving two parties who jockeyed for control of an online presence. I guess you could say that one “jacked” the other’s presence.
Elizabeth Ordonez is a dancer, model, actress, choreographer (etc.) and is known by her fans as “Elizabeth Sky.” She sued Nisha Elizabeth George and her entity Icon Sky Holdings alleging that Icon Sky wrongly obtained a trademark registration for “ELIZABETH SKY” and went on a campaign to disrupt Ordonez’s web presence. George allegedly sent letters to ModelMayhem, Twitter, MySpace, and Facebook, all of whom took down Ordonez’s content, account, or forced Ordonez to change her name.
Ownership of the mark: As far as which of the two parties should be entitled to use the ELIZABETH SKY mark, the facts were pretty unfavorable to George and Icon Sky. Ordonez had been using Elizabeth Sky as a stage name for many years, and the court described some pretty serious irregularities in George’s procurement of the trademark. George was aware of that Ordonez was the senior user, and submitted a specimen that wasn’t really a specimen (it was the exact same specimen which George submitted for another trademark application, but appeard to have been “graphically edited”).
Athough it was a default case, the court easily disposes of the trademark issue. The court finds that George was the junior user and used the ELIZABETH SKY mark in connection wich similar goods and services. This is sufficient for the court to find for plaintiff on her Lanham Act and state law unfair competition claims and this entitles Ordonez to injunctive relief as to George’s use of the ELIZABETH SKY mark.
Libel per se: Finally, plaintiff made out a claim for libel because George falsely accused plaintiff of identity theft. Since identify theft is an “infamous crime,” the court says that plaintiff satisfied the elements of libel per se and did not need to prove damages from George’s statements.
Relief: The court grants plaintiff injunctive relief with respect to the trademark issue and enjoins defendants from continuing to use the mark. Plaintiff also asked to freeze certain of George’s domain names but the court denies this relief since the complaint did not specifically allege a cause of action under the ACPA. Finally, the court awards $81,000 in damages. The bulk of the damages were for plaintiff’s tortious interference claim, and plaintiff put forth evidence that it cost her $78,000 to build her “online presence” – ten hours per week at $50 per hour (over a period of three years). She sought $243,000 in damages for performances that plaintiff’s booking company refused to book because of George’s actions, but the court found the evidence flimsy on this point (and duplicative of the $78,000 in damages it already awarded). The court awards $3000 for lost booking.
Eric has blogged a bunch about brands dueling on social networks via takedowns. The Complexions spa case: “Business Sues Facebook to Restore Its Fan Page” and the Ozimals case “Second Life Ordered to Stop Honoring a Copyright Owner's Takedown Notices” are two recent examples. In both of those cases, the networks ended up embroiled in the dispute whereas here Ordonez went after the alleged wrongdoer directly. A user can be enjoined from sending improper takedown notices, but it’s legally questionable as to whether a court can force a network to put someone’s webpage back online (both from a First Amendment and section 230 filtering standpoint, the network should be able to keep content off-line). This particular case is a trademark case, but in the copyright context, section 512 provides some applicable rules: Wrongful takedowns can result in money damages (Lenz), Someone can be enjoined from sending bogus takedown notices (Design Furnishings v. Zen Path), and an intermediary can be enjoined from providing access to a piece of content (section 512(j)).
The interesting thing about this dispute is how the networks in question readily took down plaintiff’s webpages and content. It’s unclear as to whether George went to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and waved around the trademark registration—from the court’s recitation of the facts, it did not seem like George was armed with a registration when she complained to the various networks. It’s tough to draw any conclusions from this case, but my instinct is that networks are more than willing to honor takedown notices without closely scrutinizing them, although at times it seems like networks have their own (sometimes maddening) administrative mazes in place.
This is a rare ruling awarding damages to a plaintiff who is claiming tortious interference based on a wrongful takedown. Where the takedown is based on copyright ownership, there may be a preemption issue, so it’s not easy to assert a tortious interference claim based on a copyright takedown notice. (See the Ozimals ruling, “17 USC 512(f) Preempts State Law Claims Over Bogus Copyright Takedown Notices” but see the Smith v. Summit Entertainment case: “17 USC 512(f) Claim Against 'Twilight' Studio Survives Motion to Dismiss” and Rossi v. MPAA. Where a copyright takedown is involved, a plaintiff is better off proceeding under section 512(f).)
Since this case was resolved on a default motion, it’s unclear as to whether in a contested case damages are viable. At any rate, this is one additional datapoint that people who submit takedowns want to keep mind. You can be liable under section 512 if you send a wrongful DMCA takedown, but you may also face liability for tortious interference for causing a network to take someone’s web presence off-line.