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Decision against travel bureau over domain name draws sharp dissent on appeal

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An Indiana Court of Appeals judge recently wrote that her colleagues who formed the majority to rule against a local tourism board were “out of touch,” and she suggested a case over an Internet domain name presented a novel issue that no court in the country has addressed.

At issue: Does a local visitors bureau have a common-law unfair competition claim against a resort that quickly registered the Web address “visitmichigancitylaporte.com” just after the name was announced during a public meeting?

A trial court ruled in favor of the visitors bureau on seven common-law claims, but a divided Court of Appeals panel reversed in Serenity Springs, Inc. and Laura Ostergren v. The LaPorte County Convention and Visitors Bureau, by and through its Board of Managers, 46A04-1309-MI-470. The majority – authoring Judge Melissa May and Chief Judge Nancy Vaidik – applied 100-year-old caselaw, which dissenting Judge Patricia Riley wrote was unresponsive to the realities of the Internet age.
 

riley-patricia.jpg Riley

“Despite my state and nationwide research, no single similar case exists – even Indiana case law in general is extremely sparse with respect to trademarks, let alone trade names. Although factually some cases might come close, no court before us has dealt with the almost simultaneous registrations of domain names in the context of common law unfair competition.”

In this case, the Serenity Springs resort registered the URL shortly before the visitors bureau attempted to do the same. The resort then used the Web address to direct Internet traffic to its website.

Riley held that this should give rise to a common-law unfair competition claim, as the trial court held, largely relying on Restatements of Torts to make the argument.

“By appropriating the Bureau’s trade name and linking it to its own website, Serenity created this probable confusion and deception and consequently committed unfair competition with the Bureau,” Riley wrote. “I would affirm the trial court’s finding of unfair competition in favor of the Bureau.”

But some legal experts believe that no trade name even exists in this case. The phrase in question isn’t trademarked,

and the Court of Appeals has rejected claims that the bureau has established a right of use.

Michigan City attorney Michael S. Bergerson represents the LaPorte County Convention and Visitors Bureau and said he expects the board will authorize a petition to seek transfer to the Indiana Supreme Court, based in part on the strength of the dissent.

“It would appear to me at least and others who read (the opinion) that the court is essentially inviting the visitors and convention bureau to seek transfer,” Bergerson said.

“It’s bad law, what they did,” he claimed of the Court of Appeals ruling. “It opens the door for a lot of charlatans out there who want to pass off their goods as somebody else’s.”

Attorney Jonathan Watson of Passaro Kahne & Taylor of Benton Harbor, Michigan, represented the resort and doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t think the Supreme Court is likely to take this one,” he said. “The Court of Appeals opinion is pretty much in line with what is generally legal nationwide.”

In a prior ruling, the Court of Appeals threw out the trial court ruling that enjoined Serenity Springs from using the domain name. In the current case appealed after remand that again found in favor of the bureau, May wrote for the majority that “Visit Michigan City LaPorte” was not a protectable name and Serenity Springs’ use wasn’t unfair competition.

Valparaiso University School of Law Professor Curt Cichowski said the key to the ruling was the majority’s holding that this phrase had not become identified with the visitors bureau before the resort began to use it.

Curt Cichowski Cichowski

“I don’t see this case as breaking any new ground,” said Cichowski, who teaches courses on intellectual property, trademark and unfair competition, among others. Cichowski said it’s impossible for domain names to be almost simultaneously registered, as Riley suggested in dissent, because the first registration earns the right to use the name.

“Serenity obviously adopted someone else’s future slogan as their URL. They did not act in the best of faith,” Cichowski said. “Gut instinct suggests the bureau should have some remedy. But Serenity did not infringe any trademark of the bureau, they did not unfairly compete, and they did not cyber-squat.

“There is no question they ‘took’ it from the bureau and adopted it as their own URL. But it takes more than ill intent to establish consumer confusion. The case turns on what the consuming public took the phrase to identify,” he said. “It does not turn on who thought of the phrase first, but who used it first to establish an identity – in the relevant consumers’ minds – for their goods or services.”

“The bureau could have avoided all of this by simply having the URL registered before they made the public announcement,” Cichowski said. “In hindsight, a simple cure.”

The majority relied on Hartzler v. Goshen Churn Ladder Co., 55 Ind. App. 455, 104 N.E. 34 (1914), in which the court ruled that it was unfair competition “(w)here such words or names by long use have become identified in the minds of the public with the goods or business of a particular trader.”

The majority held, “As Serenity Springs bought and began using the domain name immediately after the Bureau announced it in a public meeting, the name could not have ‘previously come to indicate and designate [the Bureau’s] goods,’ nor could it have, by ‘long use’ become identified in the minds of the public with the Bureau.”

In the interim, the bureau is using the URL michigancitylaporte.com as its Web address Bergerson said, and Watson said Serenity has parked the visitmichigancitylaporte.com domain for the time being, in compliance with the trial court order.

Bergerson claims the bureau was harmed because it invested more than $100,000 in a marketing campaign that found added value in the domain name that it sought to register. He bristles at the suggestion that the bureau and a hired marketing company simply didn’t have their ducks in a row before announcing the domain name.

“We attempted to settle the case,” he said, accusing Serenity of trying to profit from the sale of the domain name. “The demand they made was outlandish,” he said.•

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  1. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  2. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

  3. Diversity is important, but with some limitations. For instance, diversity of experience is a great thing that can be very helpful in certain jobs or roles. Diversity of skin color is never important, ever, under any circumstance. To think that skin color changes one single thing about a person is patently racist and offensive. Likewise, diversity of values is useless. Some values are better than others. In the case of a supreme court justice, I actually think diversity is unimportant. The justices are not to impose their own beliefs on rulings, but need to apply the law to the facts in an objective manner.

  4. Have been seeing this wonderful physician for a few years and was one of his patients who told him about what we were being told at CVS. Multiple ones. This was a witch hunt and they shold be ashamed of how patients were treated. Most of all, CVS should be ashamed for what they put this physician through. So thankful he fought back. His office is no "pill mill'. He does drug testing multiple times a year and sees patients a minimum of four times a year.

  5. Brian W, I fear I have not been sufficiently entertaining to bring you back. Here is a real laugh track that just might do it. When one is grabbed by the scruff of his worldview and made to choose between his Confession and his profession ... it is a not a hard choice, given the Confession affects eternity. But then comes the hardship in this world. Imagine how often I hear taunts like yours ... "what, you could not even pass character and fitness after they let you sit and pass their bar exam ... dude, there must really be something wrong with you!" Even one of the Bishop's foremost courtiers said that, when explaining why the RCC refused to stand with me. You want entertaining? How about watching your personal economy crash while you have a wife and five kids to clothe and feed. And you can't because you cannot work, because those demanding you cast off your Confession to be allowed into "their" profession have all the control. And you know that they are wrong, dead wrong, and that even the professional code itself allows your Faithful stand, to wit: "A lawyer may refuse to comply with an obligation imposed by law upon a good faith belief that no valid obligation exists. The provisions of Rule 1.2(d) concerning a good faith challenge to the validity, scope, meaning or application of the law apply to challenges of legal regulation of the practice of law." YET YOU ARE A NONPERSON before the BLE, and will not be heard on your rights or their duties to the law -- you are under tyranny, not law. And so they win in this world, you lose, and you lose even your belief in the rule of law, and demoralization joins poverty, and very troubling thoughts impeaching self worth rush in to fill the void where your career once lived. Thoughts you did not think possible. You find yourself a failure ... in your profession, in your support of your family, in the mirror. And there is little to keep hope alive, because tyranny rules so firmly and none, not the church, not the NGO's, none truly give a damn. Not even a new court, who pay such lip service to justice and ancient role models. You want entertainment? Well if you are on the side of the courtiers running the system that has crushed me, as I suspect you are, then Orwell must be a real riot: "There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever." I never thought they would win, I always thought that at the end of the day the rule of law would prevail. Yes, the rule of man's law. Instead power prevailed, so many rules broken by the system to break me. It took years, but, finally, the end that Dr Bowman predicted is upon me, the end that she advised the BLE to take to break me. Ironically, that is the one thing in her far left of center report that the BLE (after stamping, in red ink, on Jan 22) is uninterested in, as that the BLE and ADA office that used the federal statute as a sword now refuses to even dialogue on her dire prediction as to my fate. "C'est la vie" Entertaining enough for you, status quo defender?

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