Pop-ups don’t amount to unfair competition in Utah case

Nor do they give rise to tortious interference.

Overstock.com, Inc. v. SmartBargains, Inc., — P.3d —-, 2008 WL 3835094 (Utah August 19, 2008)

In 2004, Overstock.com sued its competitor SmartBargains in Utah state court for violations of the state’s anti-spyware statute [Utah Code sections 13-40-101 et seq.], unfair competition and tortious interference with prospective business relations. Overstock accused SmartBargains’ of using a technology to cause SmartBargains pop-up ads to appear when one visited Overstock.com. The lower court granted summary judgment in favor of SmartBargains, holding the anti-spyware statute unconstitutional, and finding that Overstock had not presented a genuine issue of material fact on its unfair competition and tortious interference claims.

Overstock sought review of the lower court’s decision on the unfair competition and tortious interference claims with the Utah Supreme Court. On appeal, the court affirmed the grant of summary judgment.

The lower court had looked to the various WhenU cases, which deal with pop-up advertising to determine there was no triable issue as to unfair competition. (1-800 Contacts, Inc. v. WhenU.com, Inc., 414 F.3d 400 (2d Cir.2005), Wells Fargo v. WhenU.com, Inc., 293 F.Supp.2d 734 (E.D.Mich.2003), and U-Haul Int’l, Inc. v. WhenU.com, Inc., 279 F.Supp.2d 723 (E.D.Va.2003)) But the Supreme Court found the cases to be of limited value, given that they interpreted federal statutory laws, not state common law.

The court declined to adopt a “per se rule holding that all pop-ups do not violate Utah unfair competition law.” Nonetheless, the court found that Overstock did not demonstrate specific facts beyond the pleadings showing that the pop-ups were deceptive, infringed a trademark or passed off SmartBargains’ goods as those of Overstock. After all, the pop-ups were labeled with SmartBargains’ logo and appeared in a separate window. Without something compelling like survey evidence, the court concluded there was no genuine issue for trial.

As for the tortious interference claim, the court similarly held that Overstock had not shown any evidence of improper purpose (competition was fully legitimate end) or improper means on the part of SmartBargains in causing the pop-ups to appear. Although the case doesn’t expressly say so, the dismissal of this claim was probably collateral damage to the unconstitutionality of the anti-spyware statute. Among the things included as “improper means” under Utah tortious interference law is violation of a statute. With no statue left to violate, no so-called improper means could subsist.