When can you use a competitor’s trademark in a domain name?

The recent case of XPO CNW, Inc. v. R+L Carriers, Inc. coming out of a federal court in Michigan tells the interesting story of one company opportunistically using its competitor’s trademark in a domain name to set up an employee recruiting website. The decision sketches out certain circumstances when this practice passes legal muster.

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The parties to the dispute are major trucking lines. If you have driven on any highways in the United States, you have no doubt seen 18-wheelers bearing the trademarks of the parties involved in this case. In late 2015, plaintiff XPO acquired Con-Way Freight. Shortly thereafter, defendant R+L launched a website targeting Con-Way’s employees using the domain name conwaylayoff.com. The website included the following statement:

Were you laid off from Con-way? Don’t worry about the XPO Logistics acquisition, when one door closes another opens. R+L Carriers is hiring today….Turn your valuable years of knowledge and experience into a new career with R+L Carriers, which was named a Top National/Multiregional LRL Carrier in Logistics Management magazine’s 2015 Quest for Quality Awards. R+L Carriers launched Conwaylayoff.com to inform those employees that may have been affected by the recent acquisition of Con-way Freight, of similar opportunities that we have where they may be able to put their skills to work.

Plaintiff sued for trademark infringement and for cybersquatting under the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (“ACPA”). Defendant moved for judgment on the pleadings. The court granted the motion.

The court found there to be no sufficient allegations of trademark infringement because the documents before the court showed there was no likelihood of confusion as to the origin of defendant’s services. The language on the website (quoted above) contradicted plaintiff’s assertions of likely confusion.

On the ACPA claim, the court found there was no evidence that defendant used the domain name with a bad faith intent to profit.

The court compared this situation with the one in the case of Lucas Nursery and Landscaping, Inc. v. Grosse, 359 F.3d 806 (6th Cir. 2004). In Lucas Nursery, there was no evidence that defendant intended to divert consumers from the plaintiff’s online location. Nor was there evidence that defendant ever sought to mislead consumers with regard to the site’s sponsorship. The site explicitly stated that it was established for the purposes of relaying defendant’s experience with the plaintiff’s nursery. Moreover, there was no offer to sell the site to plaintiff, and no other indicators of bad faith existed, such as providing misleading contact information or acquiring batches of additional domain names.

In this case, it was undisputed that defendant set up a web site and used plaintiff’s trademark in the domain name. But this was insufficient to establish that defendant operated in bad faith. Plaintiff did not allege that defendant ever offered to sell the domain name to plaintiff. Nor did it allege that defendant acquired other suspect domain names. Instead, plaintiff offered the court a barebones recital of the statutory language, stating that defendant registered and has used the domain name without plaintiff’s authorization and with bad faith, to profit from plaintiff’s trademark, and that the infringing domain name directed or redirected to a website controlled by defendant, who profited from its use. The court found this to be insufficient to survive the relevant pleading standard. Accordingly the court granted the motion for partial judgment on the pleadings concerning this claim.

XPO CNW, Inc. v. R+L Carriers, Inc., No. 16-10391, 2016 WL 4801283 (E.D. Mich. September 14, 2016)

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Jean-Pierre Magnan under this Creative Commons license.

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Website operator faces copyright liability over use of allegedly infringing third party add-on

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The recent case of Live Face on Web, LLC v. Biblio Holdings LLC illustrates some important risks of which any purchaser of third-party technology services or deliverables should be aware. The defendant in this case faces potential copyright liability (and the expenses associated with defending such claims) arising from technology that a third party vendor provided for defendant to enhance defendants’ website.

Plaintiff’s software

Plaintiff developed software that allows website operators to display video of a personal “host” to welcome online visitors to the website. A website operator implements plaintiff’s software by embedding an HTML script tag in the code of its website. The added code links the website to a copy of plaintiff’s software stored on the same server as the customer’s website or on a different server. When a user points his or her browser to the web page, the embedded HTML script tag causes the distribution of plaintiff’s software, which in turn causes the personal host video to be displayed. The browser saves plaintiff’s software into cache or hard drive or both, and automatically loads the software into RAM.

Defendants’ alleged infringement

Defendants allegedly used an infringing version of plaintiff’s software to display a spokesperson video on its website. Specifically, defendants claim that they contracted with a third party vendor that processed video that defendants provided, then sent defendants HTML code which defendants implemented into their site. When a user visited defendants’ website, his or her browser would call on the allegedly infringing code, which was stored on the third party vendor’s server. This caused a copy of the allegedly infringing software to be stored on the visitor’s computer in cache, memory, or its hard drive.

The proceedings

Plaintiff filed suit for copyright infringement in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Defendants moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The court denied most of the motion to dismiss, leaving the majority of copyright-related claims remaining in the case. It granted the motion to dismiss on the question of contributory liability.

Direct copyright infringement

Defendants raised several arguments as to why they should not be liable for direct copyright infringement . Although the court rejected each of these arguments, it observed that defendants’ most promising argument was that any infringement was actually done by the third party vendor that provided the technology to defendants. In this part of its opinion, the court considered the holdings of Perfect 10 v. Amazon, 508 F.3d 1146 (9th Cir. 2007) and other cases that involved in-line linking. The court observed that the reasoning of these cases appeared to limit plaintiff’s ability to hold defendants liable for direct infringement of plaintiffs distribution right. Nonetheless, the record did not have enough information for the court to definitively make a determination at this early stage. Accordingly, the court decided to permit discovery on the relationship between the third-party technology vendor and he allegedly infringing software.

The court also rejected defendants’ other arguments against liability for direct infringement. It found unpersuasive defendants’ arguments that the software was never downloaded. On this point, the court found that the complaint had sufficiently alleged that the infringing software was automatically saved into the cache or hard drives and automatically loaded into computer memory or RAM of visitors to defendants’ website. The court also rejected defendants’ arguments that the DMCA Safe Harbors protected them from liability, that any copying was only de minimis, and that previous lawsuits against the third-party technology provider should relieve defendants from liability.

Contributory infringement

On the question of contributory liability, the court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss. To bring a claim for contributory infringement, a plaintiff must allege both that its copyrighted work was directly infringed and that the defendant, with knowledge of the infringing activity, induced, caused, or materially contributed to the infringing conduct of another. The court found that plaintiffs had alleged only a bare legal conclusion that defendants knew or had reason to know they were using an infringing version of the software. Without strong enough allegations on the knowledge element of contributory infringement, this claim failed.

Vicarious infringement

Vicarious liability for copyright infringement may be imposed where a defendant profits directly from the infringement and has a right and ability to supervise the direct infringer, even if the defendant initially lacks knowledge of the infringement. The court denied the motion to dismiss on this point, as plaintiff plausibly alleged that defendants controlled the allegedly unlawful distribution of copies of plaintiff’s software to its website visitors. The court drew inferences in plaintiff’s favor, noting the allegation that defendants did modify their website to include code linking to the allegedly infringing software. Plaintiffs also successfully alleged that defendants profited from the use of the infringing software in that having the video host captured, held and prolonged the attention of the average online user, and did in fact generate revenues and profits for defendants. On this point, the court look to Arista Records v. MP3Board, 2002 WL 1997918 (S.D.N.Y. August 28,2002), which stands for the proposition that “infringement which increases a defendant’s user base or otherwise acts as a draw for customers constitutes a direct financial interest.”

Implications

In the course of negotiating technology development and service agreements, a customer should seek to get assurances from its vendor that any technology being provided will not infringe third party intellectual property rights. It is critically important to, were possible, have the vendor warrant and represent that the deliverables are non-infringing. It is equally important, still from the customer’s perspective, to have the vendor obligate itself to indemnify the customer in the event there are third party claims of intellectual property infringement. Although from this opinion we do not see all the facts, it appears this could be a situation where the defendant/customer is being taken to task and having to incur needless expense for the use of infringing software provided by its vendor. If that is the case, it is an unfortunate situation, one which a prudent customer of technology services would be well advised to seek to avoid.

Live Face on Web, LLC v. Biblio Holdings LLC, 2016 WL 4766344 (S.D.N.Y., September 13, 2016)

Photo courtesy of Flickr user J E Theriot  under this Creative Commons license.

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Yelp not liable for allegedly defamatory customer reviews

In a recent case having an outcome that should surprise no one, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has affirmed a lower court’s decision that held Yelp immune from liability under the Communications Decency Act (47 U.S.C. 230 – the “CDA”) over customer reviews that were allegedly defamatory.

Plaintiff sued Yelp for violations under RICO and the Washington Consumer Protection Act, as well as libel under Washington law. Yelp moved to dismiss for failure to state to claim upon which relief may be granted. The lower court found that plaintiff had failed to allege any facts that plausibly suggested Yelp was responsible for the content, and therefore dismissed the case. Plaintiffs sought review with the Ninth Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed.

The appellate court observed that plaintiff’s complaint, which he filed pro se, “pushed the envelope” of creative pleading. The court observed that plaintiff cryptically – “to the point of opacity” – alleged that Yelp was the one that created and developed the offending content. The court declined to open the door to such “artful skirting” of the Communications Decency Act’s safe harbor provision.

The key question before the court was whether the alleged defamatory reviews were provided by Yelp or by another information content provider. CDA immunity does not extend to situations where the web site itself is responsible for the creation or development of the offending content. The immunity protects providers or users of interactive computer services when the claims being made against them seek to treat them as a publisher or speaker of the information provided by another information content provider.

In this case, the court found that a careful reading of plaintiff’s complaint revealed that he never specifically alleged that Yelp created the content of the allegedly defamatory posts. Rather, plaintiff pled that Yelp adopted them from another website and transformed them into its own stylized promotions. The court found that these “threadbare” allegations of Yelp’s fabrication of allegedly defamatory statements were implausible on their face and were insufficient to avoid immunity under the Communications Decency Act. The court was careful to note that CDA immunity does not extend to content created or developed by an interactive computer service. “But the immunity in the CDA is broad enough to require plaintiffs alleging such a theory to state the facts plausibly suggesting the defendant fabricated content under a third party’s identity.”

The plaintiff had alleged in part that Yelp’s rating system and its use by the author of the allegedly defamatory content resulted in the creation or development of information by Yelp. The court rejected this argument, finding that the rating system did “absolutely nothing to enhance the defamatory sting of the message beyond the words offered by the user.” The court further observed that the star rating system was best characterized as a neutral tool operating on voluntary inputs that did not amount to content development or creation.

Finally, the court addressed plaintiff’s cryptic allegations that Yelp should be held liable for republishing the alleged defamatory content as advertisements or promotions on Google. A footnote in the opinion states that plaintiff was not clear whether the alleged republication was anything more than the passive indexing of Yelp reviews by the Google crawler. The decision’s final outcome, however, does not appear to depend on whether Google indexed that content as Yelp passively stood by or whether Yelp affirmatively directed the content to Google. “Nothing in the text of the CDA indicates that immunity turns on how many times an interactive computer service publishes information provided by another information content provider.” In the same way that Yelp would not be liable for posting user generated content on its web site, it would not be liable for disseminating the same content in essentially the same format to a search engine. “Simply put, proliferation and dissemination of content does not equal creation or development of content.”

Kimzey v. Yelp! Inc., — F.3d —, 2016 WL 4729492 (9th Cir. September 12, 2016)

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

Donald Trump wins smackdown victory in defamation and tortious interference lawsuit over domain name dispute

Donald Trump filed a UDRP action against plaintiff Stevens over plaintiff’s registration of the domain name TrumpEstates.com. While that action was pending, plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Trump, his organization, and his lawyers, asserting claims of defamation, tortious interference with business relations, and also seeking a declaratory judgment concerning cybersquatting.

Trump moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. The court granted the motion and dismissed the action with prejudice.

The defamation claim failed because plaintiff had established a website at the disputed domain name that provided a link to a New York Post article that republished the report of the defamatory allegations, namely, that plaintiff had violated the law and had committed cybersquatting by registering the disputed domain name. This claim failed under New York law because words voluntarily disseminated to the world by the party allegedly aggrieved cannot, by definition, be found defamatory.

The tortious interference claim failed because plaintiff did not identify any third party with which it had a business relationship, let alone one with which the Trump defendants interfered and injured.

Plaintiff’s claim for declaratory judgment sought an order from the court holding that plaintiff had not improperly registered the domain name. The court found that plaintiff did not offer any factual allegations of he acted in good faith when he registered the disputed domain name. Instead, plaintiff actually admitted that his business centered around the reselling of domain names. Federal law recognizes it to be an indication of bad faith when it offers to transfer, sell, or otherwise assign a domain name to the mark owner or any third party for financial gain without having used, or having an intent to use, the domain name in a bona fide offering of any goods or services. (In this case, the disputed domain name had been advertised as being for sale for $400,000.)

The case can be properly characterized as a “smackdown” because the court dismissed the action with prejudice, meaning that plaintiff does not have the opportunity to refile the deficient complaint. The court added some gloss on the part of the opinion where it determined that leave to amend it would be improper. It noted that the “network of regulations” that protect trademark owners’ interests in domain names makes “crystal clear that, even in cyberspace, the TRUMP mark is entitled to regulatory protection fair and square.” The court went on to note that it was inconceivable that plaintiff could, as the silence of his papers emphasized, plead any facts that would entitle him to co-opt the Trump name.

Stephens v. Trump, 2016 WL 4702437 (E.D.N.Y., September 7, 2016)

Evan_BrownAbout the Author: Evan Brown is a Chicago technology and intellectual property attorney. Call Evan at (630) 362-7237, send email to ebrown [at] internetcases.com, or follow him on Twitter @internetcases. Read Evan’s other blog, UDRP Tracker, for information about domain name disputes.

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