A Web site that serves up housing market data and "news stories" that include personal details, gleaned from the Internet about buyers and sellers, has settled a lawsuit that arose after it publicized home purchases by two associates at a prominent international law firm.
The settlement agreement prohibits the site, BlockShopper.com, from embedding hyperlinks to the law firm, Jones Day, in its stories.
BlockShopper LLC was sued by Jones Day, a 2,400-attorney law firm with 31 offices in 15 countries, after publishing separate articles last year detailing home purchases by two of the law firm’s associates in Chicago.
In addition to the addresses and selling price of the Chicago properties, the articles included each attorney’s name and biographical information gleaned from their profiles on the Jones Day Web site. BlockShopper embedded links to the profiles in the stories detailing home purchases by Jones Day associates Dan Malone and Jacob Tiedt, and posted photos of the attorneys identical to those found on the law firm’s Web site.
The law firm sued BlockShopper for alleged trademark infringement of its registered "Jones Day" service marks, and for "false designation of origin" and deceptive trade practices (see complaint).
In a motion to dismiss the case, BlockShopper surmised that Jones Day was "apparently upset" that the site had reported the details of its employees’ home purchase. In their motion, the Web site’s attorneys sounded confident that the lawsuit would be dismissed, characterizing it as a free-speech case.
"Fortunately for BlockShopper and other news media, Jones Day can no more stop the accurate news reports on www.blockshopper.com than it can stop articles in The Chicago Tribune, www.cnn.com, or any other print or electronic news source, large or small," BlockShopper argued. "To find otherwise turns trade and service mark law on its head, allowing mark holders to censor the news and other forms of First Amendment expression."
Jones Day’s lawsuit captured the attention of several free-speech groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who sought to add their voices to BlockShopper’s defense.
But the federal district court judge presiding over the case, John Darrah, rejected BlockShopper’s motion to dismiss the case, and refused to allow EFF and other free-speech groups to file a legal brief in support of BlockShopper.
With legal expenses mounting, BlockShopper decided to settle the case by agreeing not to embed clickable hyperlinks to the Jones Day Web site in its stories. Instead, BlockShopper will include the full text of any links to Jones Day in the body of the story. The settlement does not preclude BlockShopper from "deep linking" to specific pages on the Jones Day Web site, but the links cannot be embedded.
While some observers have worried that the settlement will prompt other companies to make similar attempts to prevent Web sites they don’t like from linking to them, BlockShopper co-founder Brian Timpone foresees no such repercussions.
Timpone, a former television reporter who is also the publisher of a chain of legal newspapers, told Inman News that the site will continue to write about transactions involving Jones Day attorneys "every chance we get."
"They wanted to bully us into not writing about them, and they failed," Timpone said.
Timpone said BlockShopper spent $110,000 defending itself in court. Had the case gone to trial, "no question we would have won," he said — but that expenses might have risen to $500,000. He called the settlement "a stupid, pointless resolution" that gave Jones Day an excuse to get out of a court battle that has generated considerable publicity, including articles in Slate and the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
"We hope that Jones Day’s experience — the negative publicity — will dissuade other bully lawyers from doing the same thing," to BlockShopper and other Web sites, Timpone said. "Deep linking is what the Web is."
A spokesman for Jones Day declined to comment on the settlement or the firm’s motivation for suing BlockShopper.
Jones Day’s beef
In one of two warning letters the law firm said it sent before filing suit, Jones Day accused BlockShopper of having "equipped" the site "with content and materials which are proprietary to Jones Day."
In addition to infringing on and diluting the Jones Day trademark, the July 10 letter listed numerous other alleged violations of law, including deceptive trade practices, invasion of privacy, and appropriation of likeness.
The letter demanded that within 24 hours, BlockShopper "disable all links to Jones Day’s Web site, remove the photographs of Jones Day personnel from your Web site and prevent the posting of any content on your Web site which is proprietary to Jones Day, or suggests that Jones Day is affiliated in any manner with you."
On July 17, Jones Day says it sent a similar letter, warning that "this is the last written notice you will receive."
Timpone says BlockShopper never received the letters. Jones Day filed suit Aug. 12.
In their motion to dismiss the suit, BlockShopper’s attorneys said the site could not identify Tiedt and Malone’s employer without using the words "Jones Day."
Stopping anyone — media or otherwise, from using the words Jones Day to identify the company would give Jones Day "a radical right to censor speech in contravention of the First Amendment," BlockShopper argued.
Given the many articles on the site detailing transactions involving employees of other companies, it was impossible to believe that consumers would be confused by hyperlinks or associate Jones Day with BlockShopper, the company said.
"Internet users are accustomed to encountering multiple links on the Web sites they visit," BlockShopper’s attorneys pleaded. "There is no general expectation that linked and linking sites are part of a single or affiliated entity."
Allowing trademark owners to regulate the use of their marks in connection with links "may disrupt the effectiveness of the Internet to provide a wide range of information to users" and "seriously interferes" with First Amendment rights, BlockShopper maintained.
BlockShopper hasn’t given up what the company says is its legal right to publish details of home sales from public records and link to details about buyers and sellers found with the help of search engines on public sites such as LinkedIn.
Since its launch in 2006, BlockShopper has expanded its coverage beyond Chicago and St. Louis, Mo. to include Philadelphia, Phoenix, Seattle, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Cleveland, Las Vegas, Broward and Palm Beach Counties in South Florida, and neighborhoods in New York City.
A typical BlockShopper "news story" highlights the sale of an $810,000 home in Glencoe, Ill., providing biographical information on both the buyers — a husband and wife who both happen to be rabbis — and the seller, a managing partner at a local law firm.
The story provides "deep links" to the source of the biographical information for all three — including the seller’s law firm — and a dedicated page providing more information about the property itself, including property tax and school information.
Timpone and BlockShopper co-founder Edward Weinhaus have both been subjects of BlockShopper stories themselves, in even more detailed articles about Timpone’s purchase of a $730,000 Chicago townhome and Weinhaus’ five-bedroom, $648,000 home in St. Louis, Mo.
The BlockShopper article about Timpone’s home purchase notes that he has "dabbled in politics, serving as the spokesman for the Illinois General Assembly’s Minority Leader, Lee Daniels" and "managed media communication and strategy for a handful of statewide political campaigns."
The articles about Timpone and Weinhaus, included as exhibits in Jones Day’s lawsuit, are still posted on the site.
Editor’s note: This story has been edited to clarify that BlockShopper’s settlement with Jones Day does not bar the site from "deep linking" to specific pages on the Jones Day Web site, but stipulates that the links cannot be embedded. In addition, the story originally stated articles about home purchases by BlockShopper founders Brian Timpone and Edward Weinhaus were no longer available on the site, but the stories remain "live."
- See related article: "Links, lawsuits and privacy in the age of real estate 2.0."
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