Evidence of intentional copying of domain name gives rise to presumption of trademark distinctiveness

Plaintiff Fryer sued his former employee, Bernie Brown (no relation to the author of this weblog), after Brown set up a website for his new competing auto upholstery business. Since 2000, Fryer had maintained the website located at autoupholsterykits.com. In 2002, Brown set up his website at autoupholsterykit.com.

Fryer’s suit alleged, among other things, violation of the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (“ACPA”), 15 U.S.C. §1125(d). In a motion for summary judgment, Brown argued that the domain name autoupholsterykits.com was a generic term, and thus not subject to trademark protection. He argued in the alternative that if it was not a generic term, it was at least a descriptive term without secondary meaning.

The court denied the motion for summary judgment as to the ACPA claim, holding that the domain name was a distinctive trademark and subject to protection against infringement. The court did some interesting maneuvering, however, to reach this conclusion. In essence, it avoided the real question of whether the domain name may actually be a generic term or merely describe the goods provided. Instead, the court looked to evidence of intentional copying of the plaintiff’s domain name by the defendant.

In so many words, the court conceded that an analysis of the domain name vis-à-vis the goods provided in connection therewith would be like stepping into a quagmire: “The distinctions between generic and descriptive and descriptive and suggestive are often illusory. Accordingly, the Court relies upon the link between the mark’s secondary meaning and the likelihood of confusion as critical.”

So the court analyzed the relationship of intentional copying of plaintiff’s domain name to both the likelihood of confusion and secondary meaning. It noted that “[w]hen intentional copying is at issue, the court may presume the likelihood of confusion.” Further, the court noted that “evidence of deliberate copying establishes a prima facie case of secondary meaning.”

Accordingly, the court denied summary judgment where there were factual issues relating to whether the defendant had intentionally copied the domain name.

Fryer v. Brown, 2005 WL 1677940 (W.D.Wash., Jul 15, 2005).

Spam filters and storage limits okay under First Amendment

Plaintiff de Mino, a part-time faculty member at the University of Houston Downtown, filed suit against the University, claiming that various restrictions placed on the use of school e-mail accounts violated the First Amendment right to free speech.

Specifically, de Mino complained of the University’s practice of shutting down e-mail accounts for adjunct professors during the summer, when they were not under contract to teach. He further complained of the inability to transmit e-mail after his account had reached its data storage limit. De Mino had other problems with the e-mail system when he failed to designate his personal e-mail address as legitimate, thus certain messages he had sent to other faculty had been caught in the system’s spam filter. De Mino contended that he was denied access when he tried to communicate with other faculty regarding University policies.

The court granted summary judgment in favor of the University, and dismissed the lawsuit. In deciding on de Mino’s First Amendment claim, the court looked primarily to two tests used to analyze such claims in the education context.

Under the Perry test (Perry Educ. Assn v. Perry Local Educators’ Assn., 460 U.S. 37 (1983)), educational authorities may reserve an internal mail system for its intended purposes, so long as there is no discrimination on the basis of viewpoint and the limitations imposed are reasonable in light of the purpose of the forum. Under the Tinker test, (Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969)), teacher communications may be suppressed only when the expression or its method of exercise materially and substantially interferes with the activities or discipline of the school.

In this case, the court held that the restrictions on de Mino’s e-mail account satisfied these tests. The limited duration of adjunct accounts, as well as the spam filters and storage limits were not content- or viewpoint-based restrictions, and were reasonable in light of the need to preserve the integrity of the IT system. Doing away with such restrictions (and allowing open access to spam and unlimited data storage) would have been a substantial interference with the activities of the school.

Faculty Rights Coalition v. Shahrokhi, 2005 WL 1657116 (S.D.Tex., July 13, 2005).

Has Microsoft forgotten to file a trademark application for the name of its new operating system?

Microsoft has announced that the name of its new operating system coming out next year will be called “Vista.” As of the date of this posting, a search of the records of the United States Patent and Trademark Office reveals no applications on file for the mark VISTA owned by Microsoft. Is this an oversight or merely a consequence of the several day backlog for getting information about new applications online? Perhaps it’s just a load date issue.

Further: More observations on this subject over at Infamy or Praise.

And further: Dennis Crouch over at Patently-O has a this post on the delay one finds in the world of patent applications.

Section 230 of Communications Decency Act shields websites from defamation liability

Plaintiff Whitney Information Network sued various defendants that publish websites which purport to provide consumers with an outlet to report dishonest companies. Whitney claimed it had been harmed from the defendants’ reckless publication of false stories about its business. It alleged various causes of action against the defendants, including defamation per se of business reputation.

The defendants moved to dismiss the defamation claim, arguing that Section 230(c)(1) of the Communications Decency Act shielded them from liability for defamation. That portion of the act provides that, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The court found that the defendants did not write the messages that appeared on their websites. Instead, visitors to the website submitted the information. Accordingly, the court dismissed the defamation claim, holding that the “Defendants are a service provider as they publish information by consumers on their website.”

Whitney Information Network, Inc. v. Xcentric Ventures, LLC, 2005 WL 1677256 (M.D.Fla., Jul 14, 2005).

Supreme Court nominee John Roberts and the law of the Internet

John Roberts, President Bush’s nominee for the Supreme Court has only been on the bench since 2003, when he was appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. In that time, it does not appear that Judge Roberts authored any opinions dealing squarely with what most would consider “Internet law.”

Roberts was on the panel of judges (but not the author of the opinion) in the case of Recording Indus. Assn. of America, Inc. v. Verizon, 351 F.3d 1229 (D.C.Cir., 2003), which garnered a significant amount of attention upon its pronouncement. In that case, the Court of Appeals reversed the decision of the district court which had denied Verizon’s motion to quash subpoenas issued by the RIAA. The RIAA had issued such subpoenas pursuant to the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (“DMCA”), seeking to learn the identity of accused file sharers.

The court held that under the DMCA, a subpoena could issue only to Internet service providers that actually stored infringing material on their servers. Because Verizon was acting as a mere “conduit” for data transferred between Internet users, the subpoenas should not have issued.

Of course, the Grokster opinion has changed the overall landscape of potential liability for copyright infringement over peer-to-peer networks. The author of this weblog will defer to more knowledgeable sources rather than speculate on how a Supreme Court Justice Roberts would rule on such a matter.

If the CIA cares about the environment, it apparently doesn’t want you to know about it

Court holds that CIA violated provision of Energy Policy Act, ordering publication of information regarding acquisition of alternative fuel vehicles.

The Energy Policy Act of 1992, 42 U.S.C. §13211 et seq., requires federal agencies to purchase a minimum number of alternative fuel vehicles (“AFVs”) when adding to their fleets of automobiles. To ensure compliance with this environmentally-friendly requirement, 42 U.S.C. §13218 calls for federal agencies to prepare annual reports to Congress summarizing their compliance with the AFV purchasing requirements. These annual reports must be posted “on a publicly available website on the Internet.” 42 U.S.C. 13218(b)(3).

For the past six years, the CIA has apparently been too busy with the war on terror and other pressing matters to concern itself with the reporting requirements of the Energy Policy Act. Certain environmental groups noticed this, and filed suit in federal court in California, claiming that the agency (and 12 other agencies as well) had failed to properly make the AFV compliance information available online.

The plaintiffs filed a motion for summary judgment, claiming that there was no genuine issue of material fact regarding the failure of the various agencies to meet the reporting requirements. Although the court denied the motion as to the other 12 agencies (their reporting was at least somewhat sufficient), the court found that the CIA “essentially conceded that it failed to prepare or publish any compliance reports required under the [Energy Policy] Act.”

Accordingly, the court held that the CIA had not met its reporting obligations under the Act, and ordered it to publish on the Internet no later than January 31, 2006 information regarding its acquisition of AFVs during the past six years.

Center for Biological Diversity v. U.S. Dept. of Energy et al., 2005 WL 1656881 (N.D. Cal., July 14, 2005).

School board email did not violate Sunshine Law

Chris Heather, a member of Ohio’s Northwest Local School District Board of Education, wrote a newspaper column criticizing past actions of the board, calling on the public to support two non-incumbents in the next election. Bill Lambert, another member of the board, wrote an email to two other school board members discussing factual inaccuracies in Heather’s letter and suggesting that the other members draft a response.

Plaintiff Haverkos, who as the court noted “seem[ed] to have a long history of opposition to the school board,” filed suit against the board alleging that the email communication and subsequent actions by the members of the board violated Ohio’s “Sunshine Law,” R.C. 121.22 et seq. That law requires, among other things, that public officials conduct all deliberations on official business only in open meetings.

The trial court had held that sending the email was a violation of the Sunshine Law, and had awarded summary judgment in Plaintiff Haverkos’s favor. At issue on appeal was whether the email could be considered a “discussion” under the Sunshine Law and thus subject to the law’s provisions. The appellate court reversed the trial court, holding that Ohio’s Sunshine Law does not cover email communications. Furthermore, the subject of the email was limited to election politics, not official school board business.

Haverkos v. Northwest Local Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 2005 Ohio App. LEXIS 3237 (Ct. App. Ohio, July 8, 2005).

Leaving a thin slice: CAN-SPAM does not completely preempt Washington state law

Plaintiff Gordon sued defendant Impulse Marketing, an apparent source of unwanted email. Gordon brought the lawsuit in federal court, but alleged violations of the state of Washington’s Commercial Electronic Mail Statute, RCW §19.190 et seq. and Washington’s Consumer Protection Act, RCW §19.86 et seq.

Impulse moved to dismiss, arguing that the federal CAN-SPAM Act, 15 U.S.C. §7701 et seq., preempted the state statutes under which Gordon had brought the suit. The court rejected Impulse’s argument and denied the motion.

By its own terms, the CAN-SPAM Act “supersedes” any state law that “expressly regulates the use of email to send commercial messages.” 15 U.S.C. §7707(b)(1). That same provision, however, states that the Act does not supersede state laws to the extent that those laws “prohibit falsity or deception” in an email message or its attachments.

The court looked at the prohibitions of the Washington statutes and concluded that the plain language of the CAN-SPAM Act did not support Impulse’s preemption argument. The state Commercial Electronic Mail Statute prohibits “misrepresentation” and the use of “false or misleading information” in the course of sending email messages. The state Consumer Protection Act makes it illegal to send an email message with “false or misleading information in the subject line.” Accordingly, the CAN-SPAM Act did not preempt these provisions, as they serve to prohibit “falsity or deception.”

Gordon v. Impulse Marketing Group, Inc., 2005 WL 1619847 (E.D. Wash., July 11, 2005).