Court considers Yelp posting as evidence of potential consumer confusion in trademark case

Posting by confused consumer was not hearsay.

You Fit, Inc. v. Pleasanton Fitness, LLC, 2013 WL 521784 (M.D.Fla. February 11, 2013)

In a trademark case between competing health clubs, the court considered a Yelp posting in entering a preliminary injunction, finding that while the anonymous posts were not conclusive evidence of actual confusion, they were indicative of potential consumer confusion.

The dispute centered over the use of “You Fit” and “Fit U” for health clubs. A Yelp user posted the following:

I am soo [sic] confused. I was a member at Youfit in [Arizona] and when I moved back to [California] I saw this place by my house and thought great my gym is here! When I went into the gym, I realized it was called Fit U. They use the same basic color scheme on their sign and the motto seemed the same. When I asked the girl at the desk, … [she] said her owner created this brand. I said what are you [ sic ] rates? Seemed very similar to me as when I was a member at Youfit. Very confusing and a big let down.

The court rejected defendant’s hearsay argument. It noted that affidavits and hearsay materials which would not be admissible evidence for a permanent injunction may be considered if the evidence is appropriate given the character and objectives of the injunctive proceeding. With no analysis as to why, the court found the Yelp posting appropriate to consider at this stage of the case.

Moreover, the court observed in a footnote that the Yelp post was not hearsay to begin with. It was not being offered to prove the truth of the matter asserted, but to demonstrate the consumer’s confusion — a then-existing mental state of the declarant, which is an exception to the hearsay rule. This is an interesting finding. The hearsay and non-hearsay uses of the post both turn on the same content, particularly the statement “I am soo [sic] confused.” That statement is the matter asserted (and in such capacity, excludable hearsay). And it is also the mindset of the declarant (and in such capacity, subject to an exception to the hearsay rule).

The court’s opinion does not address what one might see as the real problem with the Yelp evidence — its authenticity. Perhaps the parties did not bring that up. But one does not have to venture far in imagination to see how a crafty plaintiff could generate, or direct the generation, of self-serving social media content that would be helpful as evidence in a litigated matter.

See also: Customer reviews on social media provide important evidence in trademark dispute

No Computer Fraud and Abuse Act violation for taking over former employee’s LinkedIn account

Eagle v. Morgan, 2012 WL 4739436 (E.D.Pa. October 4, 2012)

After plaintiff was fired as an executive, her former employer (using the password known by another employee) took over plaintiff’s LinkedIn account. It kept all of plaintiff’s contacts and recommendations but switched out plaintiff’s name and photo with those of the new CEO.

LinkedIn identity writ large

Plaintiff sued in federal court under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the Lanham Act, and a slew of state law claims including identity theft, conversion and tortious interference. The former employer moved for summary judgment on the CFAA and Lanham Act claims. The court granted the motion, but continued to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims.

On the CFAA claim, the court found that plaintiff failed to show how the taking over over her account gave rise to a cognizable loss under the CFAA. The kinds of losses she tried to prove, e.g., lost future business opportunities and professional reputation, did not pertain to any impairment or damage to a computer or computer system. Moreover, the court found, plaintiff failed to specify or quantify the damages she alleged.

As for the Lanham Act claim, the court found that there was no likelihood of confusion. It noted that “anyone who navigated to [plaintiff’s] LinkedIn account would be met with [the new CEO’s] name, photograph and new position.” Accordingly, there was no effort to “pass off” the new CEO as plaintiff or to otherwise suggest an endorsement or affiliation.

Though it dismissed all the federal claims, the court kept the pending state law claims. The matter had been before the court for over a year, the judge was familiar with the facts and the parties, and dismissing it so soon before trial would not have been fair.

Other coverage by Venkat.

Photo credit: Flickr user smi23le under this Creative Commons license.

Six interesting technology law issues raised in the Facebook IPO

Patent trolls, open source, do not track, SOPA, PIPA and much, much more: Facebook’s IPO filing has a real zoo of issues.

The securities laws require that companies going public identify risk factors that could adversely affect the company’s stock. Facebook’s S-1 filing, which it sent to the SEC today, identified almost 40 such factors. A number of these risks are examples of technology law issues that almost any internet company would face, particularly companies whose product is the users.

(1) Advertising regulation. In providing detail about the nature of this risk, Facebook mentions “adverse legal developments relating to advertising, including legislative and regulatory developments” and “the impact of new technologies that could block or obscure the display of our ads and other commercial content.” Facebook is likely concerned about the various technological and legal restrictions on online behavioral advertising, whether in the form of mandatory opportunities for users to opt-out of data collection or or the more aggressive “do not track” idea. The value of the advertising is of course tied to its effectiveness, and any technological, regulatory or legislative measures to enhance user privacy is a risk to Facebook’s revenue.

(2) Data security. No one knows exactly how much information Facebook has about its users. Not only does it have all the content uploaded by its 845 million users, it has the information that could be gleaned from the staggering 100 billion friendships among those users. [More stats] A data breach puts Facebook at risk of a PR backlash, regulatory investigations from the FTC, and civil liability to its users for negligence and other causes of action. But Facebook would not be left without remedy, having in its arsenal civil actions under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Stored Communications Act (among other laws) against the perpetrators. It is also likely the federal government would step in to enforce the criminal provisions of these acts as well.

(3) Changing laws. The section of the S-1 discussing this risk factor provides a laundry list of the various issues that online businesses face. Among them: user privacy, rights of publicity, data protection, intellectual property, electronic contracts, competition, protection of minors, consumer protection, taxation, and online payment services. Facebook is understandably concerned that changes to any of these areas of the law, anywhere in the world, could make doing business more expensive or, even worse, make parts of the service unlawful. Though not mentioned by name here, SOPA, PIPA, and do-not-track legislation are clearly in Facebook’s mind when it notes that “there have been a number of recent legislative proposals in the United States . . . that would impose new obligations in areas such as privacy and liability for copyright infringement by third parties.”

(4) Intellectual property protection. The company begins its discussion of this risk with a few obvious observations, namely, how the company may be adversely affected if it is unable to secure trademark, copyright or patent registration for its various intellectual property assets. Later in the disclosure, though, Facebook says some really interesting things about open source:

As a result of our open source contributions and the use of open source in our products, we may license or be required to license innovations that turn out to be material to our business and may also be exposed to increased litigation risk. If the protection of our proprietary rights is inadequate to prevent unauthorized use or appropriation by third parties, the value of our brand and other intangible assets may be diminished and competitors may be able to more effectively mimic our service and methods of operations.

(5) Patent troll lawsuits. Facebook notes that internet and technology companies “frequently enter into litigation based on allegations of infringement, misappropriation, or other violations of intellectual property or other rights.” But it goes on to give special attention to those “non-practicing entities” (read: patent trolls) “that own patents and other intellectual property rights,” which “often attempt to aggressively assert their rights in order to extract value from technology companies.” Facebook believes that as its profile continues to rise, especially in the glory of its IPO, it will increasingly become the target of patent trolls. For now it does not seem worried: “[W]e do not believe that the final outcome of intellectual property claims that we currently face will have a material adverse effect on our business.” Instead, those endeavors are a suck on resources: “[D]efending patent and other intellectual property claims is costly and can impose a significant burden on management and employees….” And there is also the risk that these lawsuits might turn out badly, and Facebook would have to pay judgments, get licenses, or develop workarounds.

(6) Tort liability for user-generated content. Facebook acknowledges that it faces, and will face, claims relating to information that is published or made available on the site by its users, including claims concerning defamation, intellectual property rights, rights of publicity and privacy, and personal injury torts. Though it does not specifically mention the robust immunity from liability over third party content provided by 47 U.S.C. 230, Facebook indicates a certain confidence in the protections afforded by U.S. law from tort liability. It is the international scene that gives Facebook concern here: “This risk is enhanced in certain jurisdictions outside the United States where our protection from liability for third-party actions may be unclear and where we may be less protected under local laws than we are in the United States.”

You have to hand it to the teams of professionals who have put together Facebook’s IPO filing. I suppose the billions of dollars at stake can serve as a motivation for thoroughness. In any event, the well-articulated discussion of these risks in the S-1 is an interesting read, and can serve to guide the many lesser-valued companies out there.

Use of trademark in gripe site subdomain was not likely to cause confusion

Ascentive, LLC v. Opinion Corp., 2001 WL 6181452 (E.D.N.Y. December 13, 2011)

Plaintiffs sued gripe site pissedconsumer.com for trademark infringement and other forms of unfair competition. The court denied plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction. It found, among other things, that defendants’ use of plaintiffs’ trademarks as subdomains (e.g., ascentive.pissedconsumer.com) was not likely to cause confusion.

The court looked to other cases where gripe site operators chose negative words to use in conjunction with the company being criticized. Over the years, gripe site operators have commonly chosen to add the word “sucks” to the target brand. For example, in Taubman Co. v. Webfeats, 319 F.3d 770 (6th Cir. 2003), the court held there was no trademark violation by the site taubmansucks.com.

Other “suck” parts of the URL have risen above the trademark infringement fray. A case from over a decade ago found that the web address compupix.com/ballysucks would not create a likelihood of confusion because no reasonable visitor to the site would assume it to come from the same source or think it to be affiliated with, connected with, or sponsored by Bally’s. Bally Total Fitness v. Faber, 29 F.Supp.2d 1161 (C.D. Cal. 1998).

And it’s not just that these brands purport to suck. In Taylor Building Corp. v. Benfield, 507 F.Supp.2d 832 (S.D. Ohio 2007), the court found that taylorhomesripoff.com, used in connection with a forum for criticizing plaintiff, did not create any likelihood of confusion.

In this case, the notion of being “pissed” joins a lexicon of permissible gripe site nomenclature (depending on the circumstances, of course). So says the court: “Like the word ‘sucks,’ the word ‘pissed’ has entered the vernacular as a word instinct with criticism and negativity. Thus, no reasonable visitor to the [offending pages] would assume the sites to be affiliated with [plaintiffs], and PissedConsumer’s use of plaintiffs’ marks in the various domain names at issue is not likely to cause confusion as to source.”

Aside: Good lawyering by my friend Ron Coleman for the defendants in this case.

Customer reviews on social media provide important evidence in trademark dispute

Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. v. Chipotles Grill of Jonesboro, Inc., 2011 WL 2292357 (E.D. Ark. June 9, 2011)

The awesome burrito place Chipotle sued another restaurant that called itself Chipotles for trademark infringement. Plaintiff sought a preliminary injunction. The court granted the motion.

One of the most important factors in the court’s decision to grant injunctive relief was the plaintiff’s showing that it will likely succeed on the merits of the case. In a trademark infringement action, that analysis takes the form of the likelihood of confusion analysis.

Among the factors that a court should consider in determining whether there is a likelihood of confusion is whether there has been any actual confusion among members of the consuming public. In this case, the court found that the evidence plaintiff submitted of actual confusion was “substantial.”

In addition to a number of emails that customers had sent to plaintiff, the court looked to a couple of customer review sites — urbanspoon.com and Yahoo’s associatedcontent.com — each of which contained customer reviews that erroneously linked plaintiff and defendant. The court found this to constitute actual confusion, which could not be remedied even through reasonable care on the part of the consumers.

The case gives a good example of how companies (and their competitors) should be aware of how their brands appear in social media. Evidence of actual confusion is a powerful tool for a trademark plaintiff (and a potentially damning one for a trademark defendant). Smart companies will ensure they remain aware of how their marks and overall brand identity are being put forth, even off the beaten path on the web.

Evan Brown is a Chicago-based attorney practicing technology and intellectual property law. Send email to ebrown@internetcases.com, call (630) 362-7237, or follow on Twitter at @internetcases.

Court allows discovery of competitor’s keyword purchases

Scooter Store, Inc. v. Spinlife.com, LLC, 2011 WL 2160462 (S.D. Ohio June 1, 2011)

The Scooter Store and a related company sued a competitor for trademark infringement and other causes of action for unfair competition based in part on the competitor’s purchase of keywords such as “scooter store” and “your scooter store” to trigger sponsored advertisements on the web. Defendant moved for summary judgment and also moved for a protective order that would prevent it from having to turn over information to plaintiffs concerning defendant’s purchase of the keywords. The court denied the motion for protective order.

Defendant argued that it should not have to turn over the information because plaintiffs’ trademark claims based on those keywords were without merit, as the words are generic terms for the goods and services plaintiffs provide. Defendant also asserted a need to protect the commercially sensitive nature of information about its keyword purchases.

The court rejected defendant’s arguments, ordering that the discovery be allowed. It held that “whether or not [p]laintiffs’ claims involving these terms survive summary judgment [] has no bearing on whether the discovery [p]laintiffs seek is relevant, particularly viewed in light of a party’s broad rights to discovery under Rule 26.” As for protecting the sensitivity of the information, the court found that such interests could be protected through the process of designating the information confidential, and handled accordingly by the receiving party.

Court throws out Facebook’s lawsuit against Teachbook.com

Case dismissed because federal court in California did not have personal jurisdiction over Illinois resident.

Facebook, Inc. v. Teachbook.com, LLC, 2011 WL 1672464 (N.D.Cal. May 3, 2011)

Last year Facebook made us wonder if it had gone off its meds when it filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against Illinois-based Teachbook.com. More than one commentator thought Facebook was being overzealous in its efforts to claim exclusivity in the term “book” for social networking services.

However one contenances the action, the court has shut the cover on the first chapter. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California (where Facebook is located) held that it lacked personal jursidction over the Illinois defendant. So it dismissed the case.

Applying the well-known “effects test” from Calder v. Jones, the court found that Teachbook had not expressly aimed its conduct into California:

Teachbook does not register users in California. Thus, even if Teachbook intended to compete with a California company, it intended to compete for users who were not in California. The fact that an essentially passive Internet advertisement may be accessible in the plaintiff’s home state without “something more” is not enough to support personal jurisdiction in a trademark infringement suit brought in the plaintiff’s home state.

So if the fight continues, it won’t take place in Facebook’s back yard.

Court enters injunction against use of Twitter accounts in trademark case

Black Sheep Television, Ltd. v. Town of Islip, 2010 WL 4961669 (E.D.N.Y., December 6, 2010)

The Long Island Macarthur Airport is in a dispute with a company over that company’s alleged cybersquatting and the creation of websites that apparently a number of people have confused with the airport’s official marketing efforts. That company has also registered some Twitter accounts with usernames that incorporate the airport’s trademarks.

The airport has alleged trademark infringement and other similar claims against the company, and moved for a preliminary injunction. The court granted the motion, ordering (among other things) the Twitter accounts to remain in the ownership, custody, and control of the airport throughout the pendency of the litigation.

[Download the opinion]

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.

Other coverage of this case:

Trademark holder not entitled to domain name registered years before

Arizona State Trailer Sales, Inc. d/b/a Little Dealer Little Prices RV v. World Wide RV, No. FA1003001315658 (Nat’l Arb. Forum, May 7, 2010)

Startups in the process of selecting a company or product name are often frustrated to see that someone else, years ago, registered the .com version of their newly thought-of name. Similarly, companies that have acquired a trademark registration wonder whether they can use their crisp new registration certificate to stomp out someone else who has been using a domain name similar to the company’s new mark.

A recent case arising under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP for short) shows us that the earlier domain name registration is usually going to be on solid ground against a later-arriving trademark owner.

In the case of Arizona State Trailer Sales, Inc. d/b/a Little Dealer Little Prices RV v. World Wide RV, a National Arbitration Forum panelist denied the trademark owner’s cybersquatting claim against another company who had registered the domain name version of the trademark in 2006.

To be successful under the UDRP, the complainant would have had to show:

  • the domain name registered by the respondent was identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark in which the complainint had rights;
  • the respondent had no rights or legitimate interests in respect of the domain name; and
  • the domain name had been registered and was being used in bad faith.

The complaint failed on the first of these three elements. The panel found that the requirement of being identical or confusingly similiar “necessarily implies that Complainant’s rights must predate the registration of Registrant’s domain name.” Since the domain name in this case was registered years before, there was no relief to be had. The request to transfer the domain name was denied.

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