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Internet Trademark Case Summaries

Stayart v. Yahoo! Inc.

2009 WL 2840478 (E.D. Wis. Aug. 28, 2009) (granting defendant’s motion to dismiss); --- F.3d ----, 2010 WL 3785147 (7th Cir. Sept. 30, 2010) (affirming the district court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint)

Stayart v. Yahoo! Inc., 2009 WL 2840478 (E.D. Wis. Aug. 28, 2009) (granting defendant’s motion to dismiss); --- F.3d ----, 2010 WL 3785147 (7th Cir. Sept. 30, 2010) (affirming the district court’s dismissal of plaintiff’s complaint). Plaintiff Beverly Stayart used the Internet to promote her animal rights activities and other interests. Plaintiff believed that she was the only Beverly or Bev Stayart on the Internet. Defendants Yahoo! and Overture provided search engines at www.yahoo.com and www.altavista.com, respectively. Defendant Various operated online communities where members could exchange personal advertisements. Various’s Adult Friend Finder online community provided adult-oriented social networking services to over 20 million members. Plaintiff performed Internet searches for her name on Yahoo! and Overture’s search engines and discovered that her name “Bev Stayart” was listed in search results linked to sexual dysfunction drugs and pornographic websites. Plaintiff emailed Yahoo! and requested the removal of these search results. Yahoo! responded that it neither judges Internet content for appropriateness nor censors offensive materials, but rather simply presents information as it appears on the Internet. Plaintiff then found her name on an Adult Friend Finder web page advertising members near her place of residence in Wisconsin and featuring pornographic images of unidentified women. Plaintiff sued for false endorsement, alleging that defendants knowingly and intentionally used her name on the Internet without her authorization.
The district court granted defendants’ motion to dismiss and denied plaintiff’s motions to replead and for sanctions. The court first held that plaintiff did not have standing to pursue a Lanham Act claim because she did not state an intent to commercialize her identity. The court noted that the Lanham Act is focused on anti-competitive conduct in a commercial context, but plaintiff neither engaged in any commercial marketing of her identity nor alleged any intent to do so in the future. Plaintiff’s complaint was instead based on the distasteful association of her name with pornographic images, which is not a commercial injury. Her emotional desire to prevent others from using her name in ways she did not condone, however, did not create Lanham Act standing. The district court then examined the likelihood of confusion, assuming plaintiff had commercialized her identity, and held that none existed. Plaintiff’s complaint explicitly disavowed any association with pornographic materials, sexual dysfunction drugs, or sexually-oriented dating services. The court thus found that no one who accessed these links could reasonably conclude that plaintiff endorsed the products or services at issue. Plaintiff’s argument that Various was liable for initial-interest confusion also failed, because a person looking for information about plaintiff would not associate her identity with a link to an adult-oriented dating website. Finally, the district court held that Yahoo! was entitled to immunity under the Communications Decency Act because it acted as an interactive computer service. Yahoo! could not be held liable for failing to remove the offending search results after plaintiff complained, because it did not create the objectionable content and did not exert any control over the third-party websites that did so. Yahoo! merely displayed the content in the context of search results. However, the court did not extend CDA immunity to Various. Various’s Adult Friend Finder website displayed a banner ad featuring plaintiff’s name and offensive images, and the court held that it was unclear at the pleadings stage whether Various itself created the content or if it merely displayed content created by a third party. Finally, the court denied plaintiff’s motion to replead her complaint since her injuries were not those remedied by the Lanham Act.
On appeal, Stayart argued that she had standing under the Lanham Act because she had a commercial interest in her name. But the Seventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Stayart’s case and its holding that Stayart had no such commercial interest. Stayart claimed that her name had commercial value because of her extensive animal rights and genealogy activities on the Internet, but the appeals court disagreed. Under §43(a) of the Lanham Act, a person or entity has standing only if they have a “reasonable interest to protect” in a purely commercial activity. Although Stayart’s activities were well-intentioned, they were not commercial. According to the Seventh Circuit, Section 43 is a remedy available only to “a commercial plaintiff who meets the burden of proving that its commercial interests have been harmed by a competitor,” and Stayart did not meet this requirement. Stayart argued that because her activities included advocacy and boycotts, she was engaged in “services” and “commercial activities” that gave her standing to pursue her claim. Stayart relied on a Second Circuit’s decision involving a non-profit group, but that case was inapplicable here because it involved a claim for trademark infringement under §32 of the Lanham Act, which Stayart did not assert in this case Moreover, Stayart could not assert a claim under §32 because she did not own a registered mark for her name.