Companies Take Complaint Sites to Court
By Andrew Marlatt
They couldn't buy them all.
Chase Manhattan--which earlier this year registered the domain names
chasesucks.com and chasestinks.com in order to keep them from falling into
enemy hands--has now threatened to sue the owner of chasebanksucks.com.
In a Nov. 6 letter to New York City resident Scott Harrison, who owns the
.com domains chasebanksucks and chasemanhattansucks, the finance firm
claimed that linking the company name with the derogatory term dilutes its
trademark. The letter also stated Harrison could be liable for false statements
made in the site's guestbook, where complaints are registered.
Chase's warning is one of many recent developments in the battle between
companies and complaint sites, where legal precedent has not been set and
firms are deciding how to handle disparaging comments.
Last month, Bally Total Fitness' motion against the owner of the BallySucks
site was denied. Claiming trademark infringement, the company in February
sued Long Beach, Calif., resident Andrew Faber, and later filed a summary
judgement motion, arguing it should win without a trial. After an Oct. 19
hearing, a judge denied the motion and encouraged Faber to file his own
summary judgment against Bally, said Faber's attorney, Kirk Sullivan, of
Hagenbaugh & Murphy, Los Angeles.
Several companies have sued owners of sites criticizing their firms, but often
the suit disappears as site owners capitulate. Faber's case, said Sullivan, "is the
only one I know of that has gotten this far." One case unlikely to go further is a
trademark infringement and defamation suit filed last month by stock-car driver
Roy "Buckshot" Jones against an unknown person who built an anti-Buckshot
site on community site GeoCities. GeoCities shut down the site after Jones'
lawyer contacted them. Vice president of communications Bruce Zanca said
the site was removed for defamation--hate speech--which is prohibited in
GeoCities' contract with users. However, Zanca added, if owners of a
trademark complain to GeoCities, "we suspend the sites as a matter of policy.
Trademark infringement violates GeoCities content guidelines." Also following
policy, GeoCities did not reveal the site builder's identity, he said.
In Arizona, a trademark infringement and libel suit filed by U-Haul hinges on
jurisdiction: The company in March sued John Osborne, of Athens, Ga., who
runs the U-Hell Website, which publishes visitors' U-Haul "horror" stories.
Arizona is U-Haul's home base, but the defendant filed a motion to dismiss the
case, arguing the defendant and witnesses are in Georgia, not Arizona. The
motion is pending, and while Osborne's attorney, Scott McClain, said he is
confident, he conceded this is unfamiliar territory: "The idea that putting up a
Web page would subject you to be sued anywhere in world; that's a new
development. The courts are still grappling with limits of jurisdiction." The
courts may have to grapple with Chase Manhattan's dispute. Harrison insisted
he will not take down the site, launched in June after, he said, Chase dragged
its feet in refunding a faulty charge on his Chase credit card. He said the site "is
my right to free speech. Just because I own the location, it's not a violation of
their trademark. I'm not using any logos. I'm using all text." The letter does not
ask Harrison to take down the site, but to "modify the domain names of your
site to ones that do not contain 'Chase sucks' or other derogatory, vulgar, or
obscene terms." "The issue is not that [Chase] can't deal with negative
opinion," said spokesman Ken Herz. "People can discuss Chase. We have a
feedback button on our own site. The problem is the dilution of the
trademark." Jim Butler, an Internet attorney with Arnall Golden & Gregory in
Atlanta, said the claim of dilution is difficult to prove. "If [the site] is libeling the
company, they have an action," said Butler. "The 'disparaging use' argument is
tougher. The dilution law is only two years old and has not been proven yet." If
a site does make use of logos and substantive trademarks, the trademark
owner has a duty go after that site, because the company can lose rights to the
mark, said Butler. However, he added, taking complaint sites to court is not
usually a savvy tactic. "When I have seen companies who are not real
Web-aware try to come down hard, it usually backfires," he said. "A big
company is going to get a lot of bad publicity, or they're going to direct people
to the site." As for Chase, Herz said it has not added to the list of
anti-domains, such as Chasestinks.com, the company registered in January.
Herz would not comment on whether Chase will try to buy Harrison's