Court OKs Gripe Site With Similar Domain Name

Rhett Pardon
NEW ORLEANS – A federal appeals court has reversed a lower court decision finding a website operator liable for trademark infringement when he posted a gripe site against a business.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week that the owner of a domain name resembling another was not liable under federal anti-cybersquatting laws because it did not make commercial use of the trademark.

The case is of particular interest to individuals who have a beef with companies and want to create their own websites with similar names.

Joseph Maxwell, unhappy over a salesperson’s misrepresentations about the availability of a certain model home, decided to create a website to tell the story of his dispute with TMI, a Houston-based maker of homes, also known as Trendmaker Homes, owned by the giant Weyerhaeuser Real Estate Company.

Maxwell registered a domain name – www.trendmakerhome.com – that resembled TMI’s, which had already been using the domain name www.trendmakerhomes.com. The site, which omitted a single “s,” included a disclaimer at the top of the home page indicating that it was not TMI’s site.

Once the domain name expired, TMI scooped up the registration and demanded that Maxwell take down the 1-year-old website.

But Maxwell apparently felt he had some unfinished business with the home builder and registered the name www.trendmakerhome.info.

TMI filed suit, and Maxwell faced a judgment against him of $80,000 after he lost his case in U.S. District Court, which ruled he violated the federal Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, as well as U.S. and Texas trademark laws.

Last week, the 5th Circuit reversed the decision in favor of Maxwell because he did not intend to make money off of the venture.

“[A]fter analyzing the [state and federal laws], we are convinced that TMI failed to establish that Maxwell had a bad faith intent to profit from TMI’s mark and that the district court’s conclusion to the contrary was clearly erroneous,” the court said in its opinion.

The case is TMI Inc. vs. Joseph Maxwell, Nos. 03-20243, 03-20291.