Energy Company Rages Against Activist's Comedic Spoof

Like many other inductees to the Takedown Hall of Shame, Peabody Energy simply can't handle a bit of sharp criticism. Peabody, a member of a university-industry research partnership called the Consortium for Clean Coal Utilization (CCCU), decided to kick off 2010 by attempting to shut down a parody site that took aim at the official CCCU website.

The humorous but also highly critical site reflected both the skepticism about "clean coal" voiced by many environmental activists, and a broader concern about the relationship between the coal industry and university researchers. For example, the spoof site's mission statement claimed the goal of the CCCU was "to be a public relations tool for industry for the advancement of misinformation intended to manipulate the public to believe that clean utilization of coal is possible by hijacking the credibility of universities, industries, foundations, and government organizations."

Peabody's overreaching threat letter insisted that the site's use of company logos, names and references to executives amounted to not only trademark infringement and dilution but also defamation, product disparagement, and even unfair competition. Hoping to put a quick end to the threat, the creator of the site voluntarily removed the logos and added a disclaimer, but Peabody continued to insist that it had veto power over the look and feel of the critical site.

Too bad Peabody. As EFF explained, the spoof site was just that — a clearly parodic website that uses some of the target's trademarks as a necessary part of the parody. As such, it was protected by trademark fair use doctrine and the First Amendment. Moreover, the site is entirely noncommercial, and several courts have held that noncommercial uses are exempt from federal trademark law. The defamation claims were equally baseless.

Hopefully Peabody wakes up to the reality that using bogus trademark claims to threaten critics doesn’t persuade anyone. Instead, it simply makes the public wonder why you can’t take a joke.

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