Increasingly, organizations that find themselves targeted by online critics are asking courts to shut down the detractors. These groups can't ask to silence critics simply because of what they say -- after all, the First Amendment protects people's ability to bash companies -- so instead the groups allege that the criticism violates their trademark or copyright.
In the latest example, the New York City business group Union Square Partnership has taken aim at local activist/performance artist Savitri Durkee for skewering the organization at parody sites.
Durkee, a Brooklyn resident who helps run the "Church of Stop Shopping," opposes the Union Square Partnership's plans to put a restaurant in Manhattan's Union Square Park. As part of that effort she created parodies of the partnership's official site, UnionSquareNYC.org, at two sites: UnionSquarePartnership.com and UnionSquarePartnership.org.
The business group alleges that Durkee used "identical artwork, text and photography" at her sites as at the official site. The Union Square Partnership sent a takedown notice to Durkee's Web host and, when she filed a counternotice, the organization took her to court.
"Defendant has intentionally and willfully sought to confuse the public by pawning off on USP's established goodwill and reputation to present and publicize her own agenda," the lawsuit reads.
This morning, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a counterclaim against the Union Square Partnership on Durkee's behalf. The rights group argues that Durkee only incorporated portions of the official site in order to mock the organization.
"Because the disputed website is a parody, it by necessity mimics certain elements of USP's website," the group argues. "For example, the parody site replaced pictures of happy shoppers with photos of the 80 year-old elm trees that have been destroyed and a portrait of a squirrel holding a 'Keep Parks Public!' sign."
This case isn't the only time that creators of parody sites have landed in court. Critics of Wal-Mart, for example, have been hauled into court to defend their Web sites -- and have prevailed.
Durkee should win this case also. The people who run the Union Square Partnership couldn't possibly believe that Web users are going to confuse Durkee's site with theirs. On the contrary, it's clear that they simply don't like the fact that the Web has enabled her to give voice to her gripes online.