Internet Bashing up for Debate

It seems that internet free speech may not be as free as I first thought.  This story comes from The San Antonio Express News

DALLAS, Ga. (AP)—When Alan and Linda Townsend were unhappy with the sprayed-on siding applied to their house, the frustrated couple launched a Web site to complain and to give other unsatisfied customers a forum. Visitor postings to the Web site said the product, Spray on Siding, cracked, bubbled and buckled. For their efforts, the Townsends got slapped with a lawsuit by the product’s maker. The federal case may help shape the boundaries of online speech.

I’ve visited and even posted on some of these complaint sites in the past to blow off steam on various products deficiencies or a company’s lack of service.  Some of the better know sites are Complaint.com and the airline site bashing United’s service Untied.com.

I’ve never thought much about it, as the majority of the posts seemed to be escalations of issues that customer service departments seemed unable or unwilling to resolve.  What I do find disturbing though is the way many of these sites get steam rolled by the brute force of some of these companies.

Companies routinely go after individuals when they feel people are maligning them on the Internet. And often, legal scholars say, the Web site’s owners don’t fight back at all.

In this dispute, North Carolina-based Alvis Coatings Inc., which supplied the siding product used in the Townsends’ $16,721 project, claims the couple’s Web site infringes on the company’s trademarks, defames its product and intentionally misleads and confuses consumers.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they’re doing more damage to their company by not resolving this issue out of court instead of attacking one its customers.

Internet law expert Doug Isenberg of Georgia State University said the courts need to better define free-speech issues for the Internet, and this case could help.

“The right to criticize is certainly protected in general, but it is not unlimited,” Isenberg said. “Some of those limits include how you can use someone else’s trademark.”

The complaint filed by Alvis alleges that the name of the Townsends’ Web site, spraysiding.com, “is confusingly similar” to the official Alvis site, sprayonsiding.com, as well as its trademark “Spray on Siding.”

Levy argues that the Townsends have the right to use the domain name they purchased.

Courts have provided greater protection to non-commercial sites, such as the Townsends’, “but it is not quite so cut-and-dry to say if it is non-commercial use it’s acceptable,” Isenberg said.

Judges also weigh whether a person is likely to confuse the gripe site with the real one, said Wendy Seltzer, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based civil-liberties group. A site that bashes a product is not likely to create such confusion, she said.

It will be interesting to see how this one turns out.  I imagine that the courts will find in favor of the Townsends, aside from the trademark infringements, and they can keep blasting away.  In the meantime, there is comfort in the fact that site owners are not responsible for the actions of their visitors.

A federal law offers some protections to Internet providers for content their visitors post or transmit, and courts have separately held that criticism when framed as opinion is not libelous, legal scholars say.

Bash on.

 

4 thoughts on “Internet Bashing up for Debate

  1. Well this is not exactly an exciting case unless the judge makes a very different decision that ignores precedent.

    Such cases have been litigated before. For example, there were a number of cases on trade unions and the employers. The tactics employed are similar, intellectual property, defamation, etc.

    Protection of owner of the website from posts on the site sometimes depends on the materials being posted. If the materials are deemed to defame (for example) by the courts, then the owner could be liable if the party being defamed had in the past warned or told the owner about the material and asked it to be taken down.

  2. Agreed.  The reason this particular case sparked my interest is that it is going to trial in federal court.

    The legality of this type of activity has been hammered out in theory for some time now but it has rarely been tested in the courtroom, let alone a federal court.

    United Airlines tried unsuccessfully to quell Cooperstock’s endeavor with Untied.com based on some of the same legal evidence.  If the Townsends can get over the trademark hurdle the rest of the battle should be a free speech issue.

    I’m happy that someone has chosen to stand up and fight one of these cases all the way through the system so we can get some of these issues resolved.

  3. Pop Tarts Hotmail has been broken for me since I put my two cents worth in a post about O’Really last month. I just wanted to say that you fallen my crest about the Lord Acton quote. I plead guilty by reason of exhaustion, my students had turned in their papers about Lord Calvin and I ran into the twilight zone when I wrote the quote.
    I also hope that this case will resolve some of the uncertainty about posting Opinions on the internet.

  4. Hey, I live in San Antonio! Sweet, I’m like not famous at all.

    Yeah, that’s all I’ve got to contribute here. I got nothing.

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