Saturday, February 14, 2009

Ohio Firm Threatens Internet As We Know It

Last year, Blockshopper.com, a website that tracks real estate transactions in various parts of the country, noted that two attorneys had (separately) purchased properties in Chicagoland. In reporting the transactions, Blockshopper linked to the attorneys' profiles that were on the attorneys' law firm's website.

Well, either the attorneys or their firm didn't like that the sales were so widely reported. To an extent, it's difficult to blame them. Although real estate records have always been public, they have been easily accessible for only the less decade. (Maybe it's not a good idea that any Hamilton County homeowner's address can be ascertained on the Auditor's website. But that's a post for another day.)

Being attorneys, they couldn't just dislike something. And it doesn't hurt that they work for one of the largest law firms in the nation, Ohio-based Jones Day Reavis & Pogue (www.jonesday.com). So the firm did what any lawyer, faced with a bad economy, does: it created work for itself by becoming its own client in a lawsuit. The firm claimed that the practice of direct linking constitutes trademark infringement.

I'm an expert on neither trademark law nor internet law, but every account of this lawsuit I've read leads me to believe the claim was laughable. Part of the usefulness of the internet is its connectivity, and we all use "embedded links"--that is, creating a link that takes a reader to another page, although that other page's web address is not displayed as part of the link.

Laughable or not, David cannot always slay Goliath. Blockshopper finally waved the white flag after spending over a hundred thousand dollars in legal fees. Its settlement with Jones Day calls for Blockshopper to cease using embedded links; instead, in linking to Jones Day pages, it will always do so by diplaying the website address in a parenthetical, as I did in the second paragraph, above.

The Jones Day suit and settlement is a threat to every website and blog on the internet. Any corporation or individual with sufficient funds can now attempt to force those who write things they don't like to alter or take down their content by bastardizing trademark and unfair competition laws. It's hard to imagine how Jones Day's mark was diluted by Blockshopper's use. But that's exactly what they claimed. And after expending what was likely thousands of hours of attorney time, it bullied the small website into an arrangement that makes writing about Jones Day more inconvenient and time consuming (and less readable).

Links: The Plain Dealer; Citizen Media Law Project

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