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Trend Watch: Fake/Parody Web Sites Create Legal Issues

Legal disputes over "fake" Web sites and social media profiles seem to be a developing trend. On Monday, I discussed in this post how Connecticut Republicans recently set up dozens of fake Twitter accounts and Web sites using the names of Democratic state representatives, e.g., MeetChrisDonovan.com.The Republicans are using the Web sites to criticize their opponents, and had been doing the same thing using Twitter until Twitter shut down the fake accounts.

Since writing that post on Monday, I have come across two other recent stories involving fake or impersonated Web sites. This post on the Social Networking and the Law blog discusses a lawsuit filed on Sept. 24, 2009 after four students allegedly created a fake Facebook profile of another boy. The fake profile contained:

his actual cell phone number, photos, and defamatory remarks. The defendants' posts suggested the boy liked to engage in homosexual acts, and they also sent "disturbing, vulgar and sexual comments to a few girls."

At one point, the fake profile had 580 "friends" -- many who knew the boy. Some of the users recognized the profile as a prank, but some believed it really belonged to [the boy].

The lawsuit, filed by the boy's mother on his behalf, includes claims for defamation per se, defamation per quod, false light, intentional infliction of emotional distress and injunctive relief.

Most recently, as discussed in this post in the ABA Journal's Trademark Law section, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce filed a lawsuit against a group called the "Yes Men" for trademark infringement, unfair competition and false advertising. Among other things, the Yes Men created a parody/hoax Web site that allegedly looked exactly like the Chamber's. Although the Chamber's attorneys reportedly sent a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice last week to the site's provider, Hurricane Electric Internet Services, claiming that the site constituted copyright infringement and must be shut down immediately, the site is still up and running here.

As in the Connecticut Republican matter, the issue in the "Yes Men" case appears to boil down to whether the site in question is "parody." The Electronic Frontier Foundation issued a press release last week stating that "We are very disappointed the Chamber of Commerce decided to respond to political criticism with legal threats. The site is obviously intended to highlight and parody the Chamber's controversial views."

Keep your eyes open for more of these fake Web site cases, as they seem to be sprouting up everywhere these days.

Posted by Bruce Carton on October 28, 2009 at 11:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (1)

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