dan.tobias.name | Controversies | Cyberspace | Lawsuits

Dan's Political and Controversial Site:

Current Controversies, Crises, & Censorship in Cyberspace

Who's Suing Who?
Attack of the Killer Lawyers

Sometimes it seems Shakespeare was right about lawyers. There's no end to the procession of legal beagles finding excuses to sue everybody under the sun and drag them into lengthy, convoluted, expensive legal processes in a system that seems to be designed more for the enrichment of the lawyers than for the reasonable resolution of disputes. Problems with the legal system are nothing new (read Dickens' Bleak House for a highly unflattering depiction of mid-1800s British courts), but some feel they're getting worse these days, resulting in the necessity of massive liability insurance premiums for nearly every human endeavor. Anyway, while cyberspace has spent most of its history in an anarchic "Old West" situation with no need or desire for lawyers, this has changed as more of the "real world" enters the online medium, bringing such things as lawsuits with them. Or sometimes they even get criminal charges filed. Here are some cases...

  • Tech news site Techdirt is being sued by a guy with a dubious claim to have "invented email", because that site called him on his claim. See their article, and more at the EFF.

  • Literary agent Barbara Bauer (also a cabaret singer according to her Wikipedia entry) has sued a number of people and organizations including the Wikimedia Foundation, parent organization of Wikipedia, in New Jersey in 2007 for defamation. She has been making legal threats for years regarding sites that mention allegations, by a number of people including the Science Fiction Writers of America, that her author services are a scam because she insists on money up front and rarely delivers an actual sale of the author's work; normal practice for agents is to take a share of the ultimate sale commissions when they happen and nothing before that. Earlier, she even demanded $1 billion from a Web forum for unauthorized use of her name (in a forum thread where somebody was asking about her business practices). Her case is docket number L-001169-07 under Monmouth County here (I hate how some of those court sites make it so hard to link to specific case info by using form-post-based navigation systems).

  • Golfer Fuzzy Zoeller has sued a company in Miami over allegedly defamatory statements that appeared in his Wikipedia article (since removed, and even removed from the revision history) that were posted from an IP address belonging to that firm. See The Smoking Gun report and Slashdot commentary. See more Wikipedia-related controversies here.

  • Viacom is one of the entertainment companies that gets agressive in enforcing its intellectual property rights. It has recently been in the news for getting YouTube to remove a huge number of user-uploaded videos that allegedly infringed on its programs such as The Colbert Report. However, there have been a few problems... apparently, quite a few perfectly innocent videos, such as home videos of people eating at a restaurant, were inexplicably flagged as infringing by Viacom and removed by YouTube. See more info here, here, and here. (It seems like they've backed down and allowed some such videos to be restored.) Update: It seems that even this sort of bending-over-backwards by YouTube to please Viacom didn't go far enough for them... they've now sued for a billion dollars claiming that YouTube is based largely on copyright infringement.)

  • Here's a pretty weird case. The Freecycle Network, a nonprofit organization involved in encouraging people to give unwanted items to one another instead of throwing them out, is in a contentious set of lawsuits against a former local chapter no longer affiliated with them, over the issue of whether the name "Freecycle" is a proprietary, trademarked name belonging exclusively to the national organization or a generic word available for use by all. Both sides have had pro-bono lawyers (those who do their work for free out of principle rather than money) for at least some of the legal actions involved, so this isn't one of the usual sorts of legal disputes in which one or both sides is in it for the money; it's more of a clash of ideals and principles, and it's unfortunate if it ends up killing what seems like a good movement. There aren't any "Davids" or "Goliaths" here; both sides seem to have more idealism than money. The scariest part of this is an injunction banning one of the people involved in the case from "making any comments that could be construed as disparaging the trademark", which seems like a blatant violation of First Amendment rights. See this opposition brief for some arguments against it, which have temporarily prevailed: the order has currently been stayed upon appeal, pending other legal action. Also see some blog commentary here, here, here, and here. An opposition site, at greenribbon.us, was actually hit by a "Cease & Desist" letter demanding that they turn over their domain name, even though the domain itself makes no use whatsoever of the disputed trademark. A particularly notable aspect of this whole dispute is the issue of whether it's legal to encourage people to use a trademarked word as a generic term in order to undermine the trademark. For instance, if too many people talk about "xeroxing" a document or "googling" for an Internet search term, this may cause Xerox and Google to lose their trademarks because they have become generic words. However, if such usages are done in an entirely noncommercial context, Xerox and Google don't really have anything they can do to stop it; they can issue all the cease-and-desist letters they want, and try to harrass people into using the terms "properly", but don't have a legal leg to stand on against somebody who keeps on ignoring the trademark if they're not trying to promote a commercial enterprise. But does somebody have a First Amendment right to launch an organized campaign to get people to use "google" and "xerox" generically in order to hasten the demise of the trademarks? That's basically the issue here, complicated a bit by the fact that, unlike Google and Xerox, "Freecycle" isn't even firmly established as a trademark (its registration is still pending, and is subject to opposition).

  • Leo Stoller has been threatening to sue various people for infringing on his trademarks, some of which are for common English words like "stealth". Critics question whether he actually had valid basis to register the trademarks in the first place, given that he rarely actually manufactures anything, but merely attempts to profit from threatening others who use similar names themselves. While some people have caved in to him rather than take on the trouble and expense of a lawsuit, others have gone to court and Stoller (who usually acts "pro se", defending himself, even though he is not a lawyer) has lost a number of these actions, with judges sometimes expressing frustration at his tactics. Sometimes he has been compelled to pay the legal expenses of the other side of his cases. He's even in a legal case over the 2005 movie Stealth, which he claims infringes his trademark even though it's not registered in any category remotely relating to movies. A criticism site documents some of his abuses, and various blogs have written about him and his cases. In July, 2005, The New York Times wrote about him. (Here's his own site, if you'd like to see his side.)

  • Wikipedia Class Action is allegedly getting together a suit against the Wikipedia free encyclopedia that anybody can edit, inviting anybody who claims to be defamed by that site to join. See my Wiki Whiners page for more of the discontents of Wikipedia.

  • SearchKing vs. Google: A company that specializes in getting ad revenue by taking advantage of the quirks of Google's ranking algorithm is now suing Google because they tinkered their algorithm to the disadvantage of SearchKing's sites. Are search engine rankings now to be determined by court order rather than by relevance?

  • Pets Warehouse doesn't have much tolerance of free speech when it comes to its disgruntled customers speaking out. Its owner (representing himself in court, despite the adage about such self-representatives "having a fool for a client") has sued somebody who wrote about his bad experiences with this company on a message board, as well as the site that hosted the message board, asking for millions of dollars in damages. Later, when a defense fund was formed and many other Web sites publicized the case, he expanded the suit to include anybody else who spoke out against this suit or tried to rally support to the defense, and he has continued to threaten to sue more people about it. He might sue me now for mentioning this here. His actions seem to me like a conspiracy to undermine the United States Constitution by destroying the First Amendment rights of his critics -- there's got to be a law that can be used to countersue or criminally prosecute him. Some of the defendants have apparently chickened out and settled, paying him money or giving him free ad banners to make him go away, but others are pursuing their legal defense and counterattack. There were some sites on the case, but they don't seem to be active any more; one of them gave some annoying spammy marketing of some sort when I tried it [in 2011], so I've removed the links I used to have.

  • Another company threatening to sue its critics is Amby Baby, the maker of baby beds; a mother is claiming that their beds caused her baby to be injured from metal shavings, but the company denies this and considers the claims defamatory. Several Web sites and blogs have been threatened with suits for writing about this.

  • For the ultimate in tales of stupid spammers, Bernard Shifman spammed his resume to various people who were not in any way connected with human resource departments that might actually give a damn, and when one of them complained about the spamming, Bernard retaliated by threatening to sue him! He later escalated this war by threatening to sue various Web sites that had the nerve to post discussion and criticism of him. Mr. Shifman seems to have totally ruined his reputation in the computer industry now, if he ever had one, which won't be very good for the prospects for his career as a computer consultant. Is he going to threaten to sue me next, for saying this? Let's see... (So far, he hasn't actually shown any evidence he actually even has a lawyer... he's just blown lots of hot air by himself, and seems to be as ignorant of the law as he is of netiquette.)

  • Speaking of spammers suing, an Australian bulk e-mail company has sued a critic that they claim got the spammers onto a black list, harming their business.

  • This parody article, about Sony lobbying for a ban on felt tip markers because they can apparently be used to defeat one of the CD copy protection schemes being introduced lately, is only slightly more ridiculous than the actual legislation and litigation being pursued lately by the entertainment industry in their crusade against piracy (as well as fair use)

  • Chip maker Intel is suing a yoga foundation because Intel claims to own all rights to the common English word "Inside". The yoga foundation is Yoga Inside.

  • Brian K. West thought he was doing a favor when he pointed out to a local newspaper that their Web site was implemented in such an insecure way that, by pressing a button in MSIE to bring up the site in MS FrontPage, he found himself with instant access to private files in the site and the ability to change the site. He didn't change anything maliciously, but he verified that he did have access to that stuff, then called to point it out. Instead of thanking him and fixing the security hole, they called the cops and turned him in for unlawful access to a computer system -- and ultimately, the FBI searched his premises. Ultimately, he pleaded guilty, and it turned out that in addition to informing the site owner of the security hole, he had taken advantage of it to download some of the Perl scripts from the site in order to use them to help create his own site program to attempt to win the newspaper over as a client from their current ISP. So he is guilty of taking unfair advantage of this security hole, and was pretty stupid to do this while informing the site owner of it and thus calling attention to himself. But, still, any site maintainer that uses such screwed-up security (e.g., anything from Microsoft!) is kind of asking to get "hacked". Here are some articles about it:

  • Some software companies are trying to hide some pretty scary things in their license agreements. As if Microsoft wasn't enough of an Evil Empire already, there is a report that their latest version of Front Page actually has a license provision prohibiting that program to be used in the development of Web sites that criticize Microsoft in any way. I certainly hope this won't stand up in court. Anyway, this site wasn't done using Front Page (which I wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole even if there weren't oppressive conditions like this in its license), so I can say whatever I want about MicroSatan... I mean Microsoft.

  • Web hosting company Page Creators has lots of consumer horror stories about how they put bogus charges on customers' credit cards and provided horrendous and hostile customer service. But this company (apparently run by an 18 year old) has attempted, sometimes successfully, to squelch criticism by threatening to sue for libel anybody who writes it, as well as the hosts of any web sites where it appears. They actually have gotten some spineless consumer review sites to remove all reviews of this hosting company due to threats of legal action. This renders the whole concept of a review site useless, if anyone who gets negatively reviewed can suppress it. See more information here.

  • The nonprofit arts journal Leonardo, which has been published for over 30 years, was sued in France by a financial company that has been using the name "Leonardo" for a much shorter time. The complaint of trademark infringement was based on the fact that a search for "Leonardo" in popular search engines gets lots of pages from the arts journal with better positioning than the pages of the financial group. Such a search also yields plenty of Leonardo DiCaprio fan sites, so are they next to get sued? Ironically, such a search now also yields lots of sites attacking the lawsuit in question, pushing the financial pages further down in the results, so the suit was counterproductive at achieving its alleged goals. One of the worst, and most idiotic, aspects of the suit was that the plaintiff actually got the police to raid the home of the elderly widow of the arts journal's founder to make copies of all papers containing the name "Leonardo" (of which there were many crates, as the 30-year archives of the journal are being stored there). Fortunately, the arts association ended up winning the case.

  • A consumer who had a bad experience with U-Haul put up a Web site (no longer online) giving his story. The truck rental company responded by suing them, not only for libel but also for trademark infringement and dilution because they use the name "U-Haul" while discussing that company. (Apparently, they first sued in Arizona, despite the person being sued living in Georgia and having their bad experience with U-Haul's Florida branch; the judge dismissed this for lack of jurisdiction, and they then sued in Georgia.) The case seems to have reached a secret settlement, and there's no more information about it online.

  • Mattel, which makes an Internet filtering program CyberPatrol, is suing the creators of a program that lets users decrypt the secret "ban list" in that program, and any sites that distribute it. It doesn't seem to bother them, or the judge in Boston who has issued restraining orders in that case, that most of the people being sued are not even in the United States. This is yet another of the growing number of cases where U.S. courts are claiming jurisdiction over the Internet in the entire world. See details about this case. Also see my Cybersitter page for more on blocking-software controversies.

  • As if all the other ludicrous software patents weren't ridiculous enough, somebody is actually claiming patent protection on the concept of solving the Y2K problem by using "date windowing" -- e.g., counting 00-49 as meaning dates in the 2000s and 50-99 as dates in the 1900s. This is an idea so obvious that numerous developers (myself included) have been thinking it up independently, starting many years before the 1996 date of the patent application.

  • But even worse is British Telecom, who is now claiming to owe royalties on the concept of hyperlinking, as in the Web, due to a patent filed in 1980 (but not issued until 1989, and ignored by their lawyers until about 1998, who then waited until 2000 to try asserting it). Hopefully, though, somebody can shoot it down by citing Ted Nelson's Xanadu, first conceived in the 1960s. (Update: It went to court, and British Telecom lost!)

  • Southwestern Bell claims patent rights to any Web site using frames, or any other technique to have a consistent navigation menu no matter what page you're on in a site. There's heaps of prior art, so hopefully they'll be laughed out of court if anybody stands up to them.

  • The Great GIF Licensing Controversy: In 1994, Unisys wanted to extort a royalty from the authors of your favorite graphic viewers and Web browsers! Later (1999), they expanded their scope and were trying to extort a licensing fee from Web site operators using GIFs (even though, back in 1994, they explicitly denied that anyone but software authors was subject to licensing)! Fortunately, the patent expired on June 20, 2003 in the United States (though there were overseas patents that lasted until 2004).

  • Free Patents Online is a resource to look up information on patents.

  • CyberLaw Encyclopedia has links to computer-related law resources.

  • OverLawyered.com gives examples of the sufferings of our legal system.

  • Some software patent info.

  • U.S. Patent 5,838,906 claims ownership of the concept of embedded applets and plug-ins in the Web. This patent's owner is apparently suing Microsoft over it.

  • Speaking of Microsoft, they've obtained a patent on a form of style sheets -- are they going to sue all other browser makers that use Cascading Style Sheets now?

  • Wang claims to own patent rights to a good deal of the concept of the Web, and sued Netscape for featuring such "patented" concepts as the ability to use "Save As" to store web pages on your local system, and the use of filename extensions to keep track of what data type such saved files are. This was based on a 1984 videotex-related patent. Read more about it here. However, the case has now been dismissed.

  • In an earlier ridiculously-overbroad patent case, the E-Data Corporation claims to own patent rights to a ridiculously broad category of online sales, due to a 1983 patent they own which was originally intended to cover merchandising music tapes and CDs by storing them electronically and stamping them out on request at the store, while the customer waits; the wording, however, was broad enough to make it arguably apply to such things as software download stores, and E-Data aims to extort a royalty from the operators of all such things. They're even suing Broderbund Software, which doesn't even have anything resembling a download store on its site, making one wonder whether E-Data is going a ridiculous step further to claim that all online data connected to commerce (e.g., business-related web sites) is in violation of their patent.

    In actuality, online commerce of various sorts was taking place before the patent was applied for in 1983 (e.g., CompuServe began in 1979); and Ted Nelson's Xanadu project, which he wrote about in the '70s, explicitly called for the ability to sell data via a global online network with appropriate payments being made to creators, which certainly seems like electronic commerce to me. I sure hope that a judge strikes down this silly patent, the latest in a whole series of ridiculously broad patents that have been used as bludgeons against the software industry by companies that would rather litigate than innovate.

    More information on this case.

  • The Church of Scientology is well known for its use of lawsuits to harrass its critics. In fact, all the anti-Scientology links I used to have here have gone away... maybe harrassed out of existence by the church. I'll see if I can find some more when I get the chance. I have my own Scientology page, but it's just a brief "jab", not a comprehensive resource like some of the others I've seen.

  • Meta Tag Lawsuits -- several people have sued over other Web sites using their company name in the META tags to "steal" search engine traffic.

  • The author of the Why AOL Sucks page was actually threatened with a lawsuit from an employee of America Online, which AOL's management backpedaled on once the web site's author consulted his own attorney and found that the charges would be entirely frivolous and would subject AOL to a possible countersuit. Still, this case shows how uneasy the big corporate online services are about the existence of an unregulated net allowing free speech, even where this could interfere with the big corporations' marketing goals.

  • While it was still called the World Wrestling Federation, World Wrestling Entertainment had a record of threatening wrestling-fans' web sites with suits for copyright and trademark violation if they mentioned any of the WWF's trademark names, including the stage names of the wrestlers. However, the World Wildlife Fund had the last laugh by successfully suing them in British court for violating an earlier agreement regarding use of the WWF initials, forcing the name change to WWE.

  • I have lots of information on domain name conflicts in my site on the topic.

  • If you get sued, or need to sue somebody, LawGuru.com has some useful online legal resources.

  • This form letter can help you respond to a frivolous claim of copyright infringement used to try to get your site shut down.

  • Cyberspace law guide with some related links.


This page was first created 02 Sep 1996, and was last modified 09 Apr 2017.
Copyright © 1995-2018 by Daniel R. Tobias. All rights reserved.