On Tuesday of this week, I popped over to San Francisco for the Computer Forensics Show. It’s a small tradeshow targeted at attorneys, accountants, IT professionals, and law enforcement.
I sat in on one legal technology-related panel that was particularly entertaining and informative. Many, if not most, of the people in the room were not attorneys. It was interesting to be a part of a non-attorney crowd and a reminder of how many people really don’t understand basic legal technology principles. What I heard underscored was the importance of maintaining a technology dialogue between legal and other parts of the business.
It was also chance to hear some awesome war stories from a veteran partner at a major law firm. Why did Archie Comics threaten to sue a baby? Why doesn’t Madonna like porn? Why aren’t you allowed to have the domain name fcukpenguins.com?
Beam me to the jump, Scotty, and let’s see….
Eric Sinrod, a partner at Duane Morris, gave a talk that he unofficially titled, “How not to screw up online.” It was basically a crash course in corporate cyberlaw, from domain name intellectual property guidelines to employee privacy standards.
He started off by talking about French Connection UK, a clothing company that resides online at FCUK.com. Classy, right? (To be fair, the company seems to be moving toward a more conventional advertising strategy.)
He explained that certain domain names are protected under intellectual property laws, even if the domain name itself is not taken by the company. So Joe Schmoe might not be able to register a website at fcukbarbiedolls.com, because it could ostensibly harm French Connection’s brand.
“Just because it’s available doesn’t mean you can take it,” Sinrod said.
In a real-life example, a pornographer who ran a website with the URL Madonna.com got sued by Madonna, the pop star. She said the website tarnished her brand. Not sure how that works, because she wrote and starred in her own pornographic coffee table book, Sex. And it’s not like she’s the only Madonna on the planet. The defendant fought back by giving the domain name to a nonprofit health clinic. He thought that would prevent her from saying her brand had been harmed.
But Madonna hired an army of lawyers and won the case, according to Sinrod. If you clicked on the link above, looking for naked people, you will see it is now Madonna’s official website.
Usually situations like this are more easily resolved. People who may inadvertently violate the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act will usually respond to a polite “please stop” letter, or companies can settle a case through arbitration.
On the other hand, sometimes businesses get overzealous. Archie Comics sent a nasty demand letter to the owners of Veronica.org, a site run by two parents of a baby named Veronica. The site no longer exists, but at one point it was simply the parents posting cute photos of their baby. The comics company said the parents were infringing on the brand and asked them to transfer the domain name — as I’m sure everyone knows, the comic strip features a character named Veronica.
But the parents did not go quietly into the night. They held a press conference. In doing so, they created a PR nightmare for Archie. The company balked, and the demand was eventually dropped, Sinrod said.
The lesson? “Don’t pick on babies! Babies always win,” he said.
Sinrod also touched on the ever-interesting topic of employee privacy. It’s no surprise that employees generally don’t have any. With a few rare exceptions, employers can monitor anything employees do on their work computers. Sinrod made a good point, though, that computer monitoring doesn’t usually become an issue until an employee becomes a problem. Management doesn’t want to waste their time going through their workers’ internet history. But they will do it when they need to figure out if someone is spending all day on ESPN.com instead of working.
If you send occasional emails to your wife updating her on when you’ll be home, it shouldn’t usually be an issue, Sinrod said. Likewise, companies are starting to come around on the usefulness of Facebook, even though it used to be a pariah. It depends on the situation, and it’s complicated, but forward-thinking companies are figuring out ways to take advantage of social networking sites.
And Sinrod is trying to teach people that negative things on the Internet don’t necessarily matter. When a company or an individual comes to him complaining about unfavorable Internet content, whether it’s an impersonator or a site called yourcompanysucks.com, he asks, “Is it really affecting you?”
The Internet is so full of trash, that a lot of it doesn’t matter, he says. We get desensitized to it. Like, remember when it used to be a huge deal to post photos of yourself drinking online? Not so much anymore, at least to a point.
“If you didn’t hire young people who posted pictures of themselves drinking, you wouldn’t hire anyone,” Sinrod said.
It’s a wide Internet world out there, and Sinrod just scratched the surface in his excellent, hour-long presentation. It was a good reminder for attorneys that there’s a lot of serious stuff in the technological realm, but there’s a lot of room for creativity and progressive thinking and creating new opportunities.
Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at [email protected]. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com..