"First Amendment rights trump Trademark law."
"THE LANHAM ACT AS IT APPLIES TO DOMAIN NAME DISPUTES
The Lanham Act was originally enacted as the Trademark Act of 1946. It has been amended several times. It is codified at 15 U.S.C. §§ 1051-1127.1
The Lanham Act provides remedies for both trademark infringement and trademark dilution. There is now, in addition, theAnticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act of 1999.2 These are all discussed below.
- A. INFRINGEMENT
- B. DILUTION
Dilution deals with marks as a "source indicators." This term refers to the ability of a mark to identify a user and/or its products and services. One of the most important aspects of using marks as source indicators is the reputation of a user and how that affects the public’s perception of the mark.
Dilution occurs when a junior user uses a senior trademark user’s mark in a commercial context in a way that lessens the power of the senior user’s mark as a source indicator.4
There are two forms of dilution.
The first is dilution by tarnishment, which is the diminishing of the power of the senior user’s mark because of its association with the negative aspects or connotations of the junior user’s use of the mark.
The second is dilution by blurring, which is when the power of the senior user’s mark is decreased because of the blurring of the mark’s distinctive quality caused by the existence of the junior user’s mark.
In a dilution cause of action, the plaintiff must show that its mark is famous and that the junior user is using its mark in a commercial context. In order to determine whether a mark is famous, Congress set out eight nonexclusive factors that a court may consider.5
There are three uses that Congress made non-actionable under the dilution section of the Lanham Act. They are, briefly, fair use of a famous mark for comparative advertising or promotion, noncommercial use, and all forms of news reporting and commentary.6
- C. CYBERPIRACY PREVENTION
A plaintiff can establish liability by showing the following. The plaintiff must show that the defendant has a bad faith intent to profit from the mark. The plaintiff must also show that the defendant has registered, trafficked in, or uses a domain name that is identical to, confusingly similar to, or in the case of a famous mark, is dilutive of the plaintiff’s mark.8 Congress provided nine non-exclusive factors for a court to consider in order to determine bad faith under this section.9
The ACPA applies not only to protected marks, but also to protected personal names.10 The Cyberpiracy Protection for Individuals Act,11 which applies specifically to "any person who registers a domain name that consists of the name of another living person, or a name substantially and confusingly similar thereto, without that person’s consent, with the specific intent to profit from such name by selling the domain name. . ."12
Generally, the remedy for a trademark violation is injunctive. In the case of the ACPA, Congress allowed courts to order the cancellation or forfeiture of domain names that violate the trademark owner’s rights.13
III. "SUCKS.COM" CASES UNDER THE LANHAM ACTTo date, there have been two "sucks.com" cases decided under the Lanham Act. It is very unlikely that there will be any more.
In Bally Total Fitness Holding Corp. v. Faber,14 Bally brought a trademark infringement and dilution suit against Faber after Faber created and registered a website called www.compupix.com/ballysucks. This site, which no longer exists, was dedicated to complaints about Bally. The case was resolved before the ACPA was enacted.
The court immediately concluded that there was no likelihood of confusion between Bally and Ballysucks.com because they are not "related goods" and dismissed the infringement claim.
Although the court dismissed the infringement claim, it still discussed how the case would come out under the most common likelihood of confusion test, found in AMF Inc. v. Sleekcraft Boats.15 The court most likely did this because this was the first case of its kind and the court wanted to establish some official position on the matter.
The Sleekcraft test uses eight factors to determine whether a defendant’s use of a plaintiff’s trademark creates a likelihood of confusion. The factors are:
Strength of the markThe court found that Bally has strong marks, as evidenced by the amount of money spent on advertising and the fact that no other health club company uses the Bally mark. This factor came out in favor of Bally.The court found that the similarity of marks factor leaned in favor of Faber. Bally argued that the marks are identical or that adding "sucks" on the end of "Bally" is a minor change. The court found that "sucks" is such a loaded and negative word that the attachment of it to another word cannot be considered a minor change.
Proximity of the goods
Similarity of the marks
Evidence of confusion
Marketing channels used
Type of goods and the degree of care likely to be exercised by the purchaser
Defendant’s intent in selecting the mark
Likelihood of expansion of the product lines16
Bally asserted that the goods were in close proximity because both used the Internet and because it had a complaint section on its own website. The court found, however, that the sites did not compete, even though they were both on the Internet. This is because Bally’s is a commercial site while Faber’s site is for the purpose of consumer commentary. The factor leaned in favor of Faber.
Bally presented no evidence of actual confusion. Bally argued that the confusion would be patently obvious due to the similarity of the marks. The court, however, found that a reasonably prudent user would not mistake Faber’s site and the official Bally’s site. This factor leaned in favor of Faber.
Bally argued that the marketing channels used, namely the Internet, were identical. The court found that the overlap of marketing channels was irrelevant because Faber’s site was not a commercial use of the mark. This factor was neutral or slightly in favor of Faber.
Bally argues that an Internet user may accidentally access Faber’s site when searching for Bally’s site on the web. The court dismissed this because Faber does not actually use Bally’s trademark. It further points out that an Internet user searching with a search engine may want all the information available on Bally’s and is entitled to more than Bally’s own site. This factor leaned in favor of Faber.
The court found, and Bally agreed to some extent, that in the context of consumer commentary, Faber was entitled to use Bally’s mark. In fact, he had to use Bally’s mark in some way to identify what he was criticizing. This factor was neutral.
Bally conceded that there was no likelihood of the two parties expanding into each other’s lines of business. For this reason, the last factor leaned in favor of Faber.17
In concluding its discussion of likelihood of confusion, the court stated that "applying Bally’s argument would extend trademark protection to eclipse First Amendment rights. The courts, however, have rejected this approach by holding that trademark rights may be limited by First Amendment concerns."18
Under the dilution claim, Bally argued that there was dilution by tarnishment because Faber also had pornographic websites linked from the compupix.com site.
The court found that Faber had engaged in no commercial use of the Bally name due to the nature of the website. The court also concluded that there was no tarnishment. In so deciding, the court said that if tarnishment existed in this case, "it would be an impossible task to determine dilution on the Internet."19 The court went on to point out that to include "linked sites as grounds for finding commercial use or dilution would extend the statute far beyond its intended purpose of protecting trademark owners from use that have the effect of ‘lessening. . . the capacity of a famous mark to identify and distinguish goods or services.’"20
For these reasons, the court ruled in favor of Faber.
In the other "sucks.com" Lanham Act, Lucent Technologies, Inc. v. Lucentsucks.com,21 the court did not get beyond the jurisdictional issues to reach the merits. However, the court acknowledged in dicta that had the case reached the merits, the court probably would have reached a decision similar the one reached in Bally.22
The remaining "sucks.com" cases have been decided under the UDRP.
IV. THE UNIFORM DOMAIN NAME DISPUTE RESOLUTION POLICYOn October 24, 1999, ICANN adopted its Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy.23 Since then, the UDRP has been used by domain name dispute resolution panels, most notably those associated with WIPO, to rule on domain name disputes. A number of these disputes have involved "sucks.com" websites.
Part of the registration process for a getting a domain name includes acceptance of the UDRP. A domain name owner can lose its rights to the domain name if it violates the UDRP.24
Section 4 of the UDRP explains the mandatory administrative proceeding that any domain name owner could be subject to. This proceeding occurs when a third party complainant asserts that the domain name owner has used a domain name that is identical or confusingly similar to the complainant’s mark, that the domain name owner does not have rights or legitimate interests in the name, and that the domain name has been registered and used in bad faith.25
The UDRP lists four non-exclusive factors to be considered in determining bad faith.26
The remedies sought in a UDRP proceedings are the cancellation of the domain name or the transfer of the domain name to the complainant owner of the mark.27
The UDRP proceeding does not prevent its loser from taking the case to court following the conclusion of the proceeding.28
V. "SUCKS.COM" CASES UNDER THE UDRPA number of "sucks.com" cases have been heard by panels using the UDRP’s mandatory administrative procedure. These hearings have come out strongly in the opposite direction from the court cases under the Lanham Act.
At one point, in fact, nine of the eleven "sucks.com" cases heard under the UDRP, had been decided in favor of the original mark owner, with the other two hearings awaiting decisions.29
A notable recent example of a UDRP hearing is Diageo plc v. John Zuccarini, Individually and t/a Cupcake Patrol.30 Diageo, formerly known as Guinness plc, the owner of the company and brewery that produces Guinness beer, brought this proceeding against Zuccarini after Zuccarini registered eleven domain names, all variations on the theme of "Guinness beer sucks."31
Previously, Diageo had brought a hearing against Zuccarini for his registration of guinnes.com. It claimed that Zuccarini’s registration of the eleven Guinness _____sucks.com sites were in direct retaliation for its having done this.32
In deciding on Zuccarini’s liability, the panel33 first looked at the question of whether the domain names were identical or confusingly similar to Diageo’s mark. Because the marks were not identical, the panel looked to whether they were confusingly similar. The panel decided that the domain names were confusingly similar.
In doing so, it relied on precedent from a previous hearing in which a panel held that "the confusingly similar test may be held to a different standard when used with Internet search engines."34
The panel also used the same Sleekcraft test for likelihood of confusion that the court used in Bally.35 However, the panel acknowledged that there were some difficulties in applying the test to a domain name dispute. Nevertheless, because neither party objected, the test was used.36
The panel found that Diageo had a very strong mark.
The panel found that although the parties were in different line of trade, the fact that there were beer references in a number of Zuccarini’s domain names was enough to establish some kind of proximity.
The panel found that because the word "guinness" appeared at the beginning of each of the domain names, there was at least some similarity between the marks.
There was no evidence of actual confusion. However, the panel found that it was unrealistic to require such evidence, especially because Zuccarini’s domain names had not actually been used for active websites.
When considering the marketing channels, the panel again pointed out the distinction between trademarks and domain names. It did accept, however, the assertion that a search using a search engine would likely point out the domain names in dispute.
The panel was unsure of how to interpret the question of the degree care exercised by the purchaser. Of particular concern was the fact that "sucks" is an American slang word and may not be familiar to all English speakers, let alone all Internet users. Because of this, the panel envisioned "circumstances where Internet users are not aware of the abusive connotations of the word and consequently associate the domain name with the owner of the trademark."37
The panel found that Zuccarini had no legitimate reason to select the marks to use for the domain name and that there was no evidence of any likelihood that either party would expand its product lines.
Based on its consideration of the UDRP standards and the Sleekcraft factors, the panel decided that Zuccarini had no legitimate interest in the Guinness name, and that his registering the "sucks.com" websites was primarily to disrupt Diageo’s business and was therefore done in bad faith.38
Based on its findings, the panel ordered that all eleven domain names be transferred to Diageo.39
While the panel did decide in favor of the Diageo, it did so at least in part because Zuccarini made no response to Diageo’s allegations, which the panel felt established prima facie cases for the elements needed under the UDRP.40
The Bally court focused in the end on the fact that First Amendment rights trump Trademark law. The panel in this case was more concerned by the fact that a test designed for trademark law was used in a decision also involving domain names, stating that "it is obvious that there remains many areas of doubt as to how the various elements of the test can be transposed in its application to disputes involving a comparison of domain names and trademarks."41 "
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