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Law Firm Sues Google for Right to Its Name

How'd you like to advertise for your competitor? The New Haven, Conn.-based personal injury law firm of Stratton Faxon wasn't too keen on the idea. It's suing Google for selling the firm's name as a keyword ad to the site of a competitor, reports the Connecticut Law Tribune.

Stratton Faxon claims it discovered last week that Web users Googling the firm's name would find the site listed second in search results. Above it was a list -- albeit a paid one -- with the URL to Stamford, Conn.-based personal injury firm Silver, Golub and Teitell. Though it's not clear from the story whether the firm is also a party to the action, Silver Golub claims that it was unaware of any improper use of the keyword. Within a day, the issue was resolved, with Silver Golub's Web site no longer turning up in search results for Stratton.The firm has since checked with its marketing firm and instructed it to remove any other law firm references from its Google Adwords campaign.

While we don't know yet how the lawsuit will resolve, it teaches lawyers several valuable lessons. First, lawyers must be vigilant about running searches on their name and that of their firm on Google and other search engines. In my own case, I've discovered a couple of situations where competitors or providers of related services have used my Web site, MyShingle.com in their search pages. In most cases I've resolved the matter by contacting the site owners directly, who've agreed to removal. Second, lawyers can't delegate matters -- even search engine optimization or Adwords campaigns -- to marketers, without providing some oversight. My guess is that most law firms would have instructed their marketers not to include the name of competitors as keywords for the site either as a matter of professional courtesy or to avoid the kind of deceptive practice that might draw bar scrutiny.

So what's the solution to all of this? While the courts can decide as a general matter whether Google can sell law firm names or other trademarks as keywords, I believe that the bars have a role to play here as well. Though I generally oppose expansion of bar regulatory authority, I would have no problem with state bar disciplinary proceedings banning law firms from using the name of other firms as keywords. Use of another firm name could suggest an affiliation to a consumer -- it's the kind of deceptive practice the bar would be justified in curtailing. Or is this too much of an imposition on free speech?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on May 29, 2009 at 03:32 PM | Permalink | Comments (5)

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