March 02, 2012
Tea Partiers Wage War Against Each Other Over a Google Groups Account--Kremer v. Tea Party Patriots
By Eric Goldman
I'm going to exercise extraordinary restraint and not crack any jokes about the Tea Party movement or its adherents.
Kremer created the Tea Party Patriots (TPP) Google Group in early 2009. Later in 2009, Kremer had a falling out with TPP. See Kremer's side of the story. (FWIW, it looks like the internal acrimony has continued after she left). Litigation over Kremer's departure ensued, including a scramble for the trademark and "the Websites identified in the Complaint (i .e., www.teapartypatriots.org, (both the website and the domain name); the Tea Party Patriots Ning social networking site; accounts with Google Groups, Blogtalkradio, YouTube, and Ustream; and other associated websites and Internet accounts that carry on TPP's activities)." The parties temporarily resolved their dispute with a consent order in 2009 that restricted Kremer's ability to control the various web accounts. TPP alleged that Kremer violated the consent order and brought a contempt proceeding in 2011. The trial court found Kremer in contempt. In this ruling, the appellate court affirms.
One of the main points of contention relates to the TPP Google Group (this one?). Kremer created the group, so Google recognized her as the group's "owner" and gave her super-user administrative powers. Mysteriously, after the consent order, Dooley (a TPP director) was blocked from logging into the group, and the group was renamed to "Patriotville" (which "resulted in confusion and resulted in TPP receiving criticism on its own site"). TPP claimed Kremer did it.
The court was persuaded:
The message Dooley received in January 2011 indicated that "the owner" had blocked her access to the site, and it is undisputed that Google considers Kremer to be the owner. Moreover, Kremer admitted that she had blocked another individual from the site. This evidence supports the trial court's finding that Kremer had intentionally violated the Consent Order.
The first point seems like a non-sequitur. Is it possible that Google characterizes more than one person as the account "owner"? At minimum, the court appears to overweight the wording of a form email that probably wasn't written by a lawyer. Then again, good lawyering could have easily made this a contestable point--if there was something to contest.
Kremer was also ordered to turn over the Google Group for the Georgia chapter of TPP based on the order's reference to "associated websites and Internet accounts that carry on TPP activities." Kremer further violated the consent order by not dissociating herself from TPP more clearly in her biographies.
Two brief observations about this situation:
1) This is another reminder that it's crucial for newly formed organizations to definitively address the ownership of trademarks and other virtual assets from day 1, when everyone still loves each other. We've blogged on this issue many times; my paradigmatic example is Mikhlyn v. Bove. When the ownership issue comes up later, it's usually because the principals are locked in a death-match and are beyond the point of reaching sensible compromises.
2) In further support of that principle, a lawsuit over a Google Group that requires a week-long trial, followed by an appeal to a state appellate court, with at least three spin-off lawsuits related to statements/conduct in the initial lawsuit, cannot be cost-benefit justified. Then again, for folks who aren't impressed with the Tea Party movement, there may be some salutary side-effects to having Tea Partiers spend their energy and money fighting each other.
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