Yahoo! Search Results In False Endorsement Claim

Last week, we looked at a case where Google was found guilty of defaming a person based on Google’s search engine’s suggested results when the person was typing his name in the search box.  In a similar case, a woman named Beverly Stayart sued Yahoo! after she put her name into Yahoo!’s search engine and was presented with links to online pharmaceutical companies, links to pornographic websites, and links that directed her to other websites promoting sexual escapades.  The court found that Stayart lacked standing under the Lanham Act for a trademark infringement claim.

Stayart claimed that Yahoo!’s conduct violated § 43(a) of the Lanham Act because the search results with her name improperly gave her endorsement to pornography and online pharmaceuticals.  Besides the fact that Stayart had a 44 page complaint with more than 30 exhibits, which is likely much more than a short and plain statement of the facts, the court granted Yahoo!’s motion to dismiss the case based on Stayart not having a commercial interest in her name and lacking standing under the Lanham Act.

In the past, Stayart has made humanitarian efforts on behalf of baby seals, wolves and wild horses,  “scholarly posts” on a website, two poems that appear on a Danish website, and conducted genealogy research.  Based on her background, does Stayart have “a reasonable interest to protect” in a commercial activity? The district court said no, and the appellate court agreed.  Was the humanitarian efforts commercial?  How about the genealogy research?  In order to win a judgment, Stayart would have to show that she is a commercial plaintiff and that her commercial interests were harmed by a competitor.

Even if Stayart had brought her action under § 32 of the Lanham Act, which gives “[n]onprofit and charitable corporations…the same protection against confusing use of their names as is given to business corporations,” she would not be able to recover because her name is not a registered trademark.

Stayart v. Yahoo! Inc., 2010 WL 3785147 (7th Cir. Sept. 30, 2010).

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