In a decision that could have significant negative consequences for online speech and commerce, Judge John Darrah of the Northern District of Illinois has refused to dismiss some of the most preposterous trademark claims we've ever seen (and that's saying something).
The defendant in the case, BlockShopper.com, provides information about recent real estate transactions, including publicly available information about buyers and sellers. After BlockShopper published articles referring to two Jones Day attorneys who had recently bought homes (with links to their bios on the Jones Day firm website), the law firm sued BlockShopper, alleging that using the term "Jones Day" to refer to the firm in a headline and linking to the Jones Day website could lead to confusion over the sponsorship of the site. With amicus support from EFF, Public Citizen, Public Knowledge and the Citizen Media Law Project, BlockShopper.com argued that the uses were fully protected by fair use and the First Amendment, and that no Internet user would imagine that Jones Day was affiliated with or sponsored BlockShopper based solely on a link or a reference to the firm in a headline.
This case was a perfect candidate for early dismissal. It is based on the erroneous belief that trademark owners can prevent others from using their marks, accurately, in the ordinary course of communication, to refer to the owners themselves. Trademark law has never given a mark owner veto power over all uses of its mark, and for good reason. Online and off, trademarks—words, symbols, colors, etc—are also essential components of everyday language, used by companies, consumers and citizens to share information. If Jones Day were correct, no news site or blog could use marks to identify markholders, or links to point to further information about the markholders, without risking a lawsuit. But that is not the law, and Jones Day should know it.
We're disappointed that a respected law firm like Jones Day started this outrageous litigation, but we're even more disappointed that the court didn't take this opportunity to nip it in the bud. The court said that it could not end the case at this stage because it is required to take Jones Day's allegations as true. That's not precisely so; on an early motion like BlockShopper's, a court is required to accept facts as true, but not (implausible) legal conclusions. That's because deciding the facts is up to a jury. But interpreting the law is exactly what the judge is supposed to do, and it's disheartening to see the court let this case go any further.
At any rate, by allowing the case to go forward, the court has made BlockShopper's defense much more expensive, even if BlockShopper is confident (as it should be) that it will win in the end. Thus, the court has sent a signal to news sites and blogs everywhere: no matter what the Lanham Act says, if you link to a trademark owner's site, or use a mark in a headline or post, you'd better have a pretty decent legal budget.