Personal name in web search results did not support Lanham Act claim

Stayart v. Yahoo, — F.3d —, 2010 WL 3785147 (September 30, 2010)

Plaintiff performed a vanity search of her own name on Yahoo and found some results on porn and pharmaceutical sites. When Yahoo would not remove the search results upon plaintiff’s request, plaintiff sued under Section 43(a) of the Lanham Act. She claimed that the results showed a false endorsement by her of the pornographic and pharmaceutical sites.

Yahoo moved to dismiss, arguing that plaintiff was without standing to challenge this use of her personal name under Section 43(a). The district court granted the motion. Plaintiff sought review with the Seventh Circuit. On appeal, the court affirmed.

It held that plaintiff had failed to show she had a commercial interest in her name. Such interests are the only ones protectible under Section 43(a). Attempting to overcome this hurdle, plaintiff urged the court to consider her online activities such as writing “scholarly articles” and some poetry to be commercial services.

The court rejected this argument, noting that while those goals may be passionate and well intentioned, they are not commercial. Absent commercial activity, plaintiff lacked standing under the Lanham Act.

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  1. One thought comes to mind. The Seventh Circuit and District Court concluded that the plaintiff's name did not have commercial value. Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that the plaintiff's name has de minimis commercial value? There are ads that feature "real people" who are probably compensated for appearing in the ad. Their personas may not have a great deal of commercial value, but there is some value there. Should it be different for this particular plaintiff?

    That being said, the suit strikes me as a silly one. It is more likely that the search engines returned results based upon her first name–distinctly female–rather than her complete name. In addition, shouldn't her ire be directed at the purveyors of the products and services rather than the search engines?

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