T H E L A W
Parody Sites Prevail in Court
By Matt Gallaway, February 13, 2001
No one likes to be made fun of online, but when it comes to the law, you
probably have little recourse.
We've all heard about creative Web surfers who've registered 150 variations
of a company's domain name only to hold the names hostage and demand a hefty
ransom. Thanks to a federal law passed in 1999, corporations can now sue for
that sort of copyright infringement, or "cybersquatting."
So when CNNdn.com popped up on the Net recently, AOL Time Warner (owner of
eCompany Now, incidentally) promptly filed a suit. The rogue site was
registered and designed (in a couple of hours) by Zack Exley, a Boston-based
computer consultant. In addition to using CNN's name in the domain, the site
featured a logo similar to CNN's, along with fictional news stories about
the financial demise of the Internet. So it would seem that Exley clearly
ripped off the CNN brand and trademark.
His actions may, nonetheless, have been perfectly legal. Exley's site was a
send-up, and the American legal system has a long tradition of protecting
parody as free speech under the First Amendment. Cybersquatting laws aside,
our legal system veers toward the side of humor. Even the federal law
against cybersquatting (the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act)
specifies that parody is a form of fair (i.e., legitimate) use that must be
considered by a court as a mitigating factor for any
defendant sued under the statute.
Exley is not a first-time offender. During the presidential election, many
people were amused by gwbush.com, an Exley creation that parodied George W.
Bush's official campaign site. So he ostensibly knows where the line
between cybersquatting and spoofing is. And he isn't like the typical URL
bandit: He doesn't own multiple domain names with plans to sell them, his
site was not set up for any commercial gain, and the purpose of the site was
not to divert traffic from the actual CNN site.
Also in Exley's favor is the fact that others have not been successfully
held accountable for similar alleged peccadilloes. In one notorious example,
a magazine was sued by L.L.Bean when it featured a section called "L.L.Bean
Back to School SexCatalog." The court ruled in the magazine's favor,
stating, "Denying parodists the opportunity to poke fun at symbols and names
which have become woven into the fabric of our daily life would constitute a
serious curtailment of a protected form of expression." As we have moved
into the Internet age, courts have similarly upheld the right to register
and maintain websites such as Microsoftsucks.com.
The lesson in all this is that while nobody likes to be made fun of, it's an
unpleasant fact of life -- or perhaps a price of success -- that is well
protected by law. And while companies should vigilantly root out malevolent
cybersquatting, they'll probably be forced to tolerate a jab or two online.
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