Web Linking Trademark Dispute Settled

A settlement has been reached in the U.S. trademark/web linking dispute between law firm Jones Day and real estate information site BlockShopper.com. Jones Day had sought to prevent BlockShopper from linking to Jones Day’s site because they claimed BlockShopper improperly used Jones Day’s marks and gave the impression that Jones Day somehow approved or was affiliated with BlockShopper. The settlement allows BlockShopper to continue to link to pages on Jones Day’s website but BlockShopper must only attach links to text showing the actual destination web address and not embed the links in other words.

Part of BlockShopper’s business is reporting publicly available details regarding recent personal real estate transactions. Their news section highlights personal transactions of local professionals and executives. These reports include individual buyers’ or sellers’ names, the cost of the transaction and other housing details. The reports also include some brief biographical information on the individual, their photo if available and external links to sites affiliated with that person, for example to their profile on their employer’s website.

The dispute with Jones Day arose after Blockshopper reported on the personal real estate purchases of a couple of lawyers from Jones Day. As is typically the case, the reports included a photo of the individuals from their profile on Jones Day’s site and an embedded link in the lawyers’ names to their profiles on Jones Day’s site.

The dispute gained wide attention as the practice of embedding links to external websites in related words is part of the fundamental design of the Internet and is ubiquitous online.  

The settlement was reached by the parties following the denial of BlockShopper’s motion to dismiss Jones Day’s complaint. The judge allowed Jones Day’s complaint to move forward on all claims except those directed at the individual officers of BlockShopper. As noted, the settlement simply forces BlockShopper to link to Jones Day in the prescribed form rather than embed the link in the individual’s name. That is, they must state that the individual is employed by Jones Day and that additional information can be found at [the url of the profile on Jones Day’s site], with only the full url being linked. BlockShopper must also no longer include photos from Jones Day’s employee profiles.

A group of online rights organizations, Public Citizen, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, and Citizen Media Law Project, sought to file an amicus brief with the court in light of the significance of the detrimental impact that a decision in favour of Jones Day would have on the Internet. However, their motion was denied.

Many online reports of the dispute come out in favour of BlockShopper’s position on this issue and cast Jones Day as a big bully. Given that a final decision supporting Jones Day’s argument would be incompatible with the reality of how the Internet works, that associating this with trademark infringement is quite a stretch in the first place, and given the difference in size and legal sophistication of the parties, this may be a fair position.

However, I find it hard to place too much blame on Jones Day for trying to go after BlockShopper in some way even though I disagree with their method. Browse through one of BlockShopper’s local news pages and tell me it doesn’t creep you out, at least a little bit? Personally, I fail to see how pairing these personal details of random private citizens with their home purchases is anything more than a disturbing invasion of privacy, let alone ‘news’. While home resale prices are very useful to help determine market value, how does associating that information with details about individual people involved become ‘news’? The fact that all the data is separately publicly available and that it’s technically a snap, and perhaps legal, to aggregate it together doesn’t necessarily justify doing so. If these details about you and your recent home purchase were ‘reported’ this way, wouldn’t you want to flex your muscle against them as well? Perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at the privacy protections around the data being used.