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Trademark law limited to commerce

A vanity search on the Internet may result in some dismaying hits. But it is not the basis for a federal lawsuit.

The 7th Circuit on Sept. 30 affirmed the dismissal of a Wisconsin woman’s lawsuit against Yahoo Inc. and assorted other search companies for failure to state a claim.

Beverly Stayart is, according to her complaint, a “sophisticated, well-educated, and highly intelligent professional woman.” She is also a poet and is involved in humanitarian endeavors.

But when she entered her name into Yahoo’s search engine, the results included online pharmaceutical companies, pornographic websites, and links promoting sexual encounters.

Stayart then sued Yahoo and others, claiming trademark infringement and state law privacy claims.

U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph T. Randa dismissed the trademark claims and declined to exercise jurisdiction over the state claims. In an opinion by Judge Daniel Manion, the 7th Circuit affirmed.

The court rejected Stayart’s claim that, by connecting her name to pornography and online pharmaceuticals, the defendants violated sec. 43(a) of the Lanham Act. To assert such a claim, the court concluded, a plaintiff must have a commercial interest to protect.

Stayart argued that, because of her humanitarian efforts and poetry, her name has commercial value.

But the court disagreed: “While Stayart’s goals may be passionate and well-intentioned, they are not commercial. And the good name that a person garners in such altruistic feats is not what sec. 43 of the Lanham Act protects.”

Instead, the court found the purpose of the law is to protect those whose commercial interests have been harmed by a competitor.

Stayart contended that she could sue, nonetheless, because the Lanham Act protects nonprofit and charitable corporations, as well as business corporations.

However, the court found that this protection comes not from sec. 43(a) of the Act, but from sec. 32; and unlike sec. 43, sec. 32 requires that a plaintiff seeking protection have a registered trademark.

Because Stayart’s name is not a registered trademark, the court held she lacked standing to sue under the Act.

David Ziemer can be reached at david.ziemer@wislawjournal.com

What the court held

Case: Stayart v. Yahoo! Inc., P.A., No. 09-3379

Issues: Can an individual sue for trademark violations, based on the results one’s name generates in a search engine?

Holdings: No. The Lanham Act protects only commercial interests.

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