In the recent decision of Susan Scheff v. Psyborgue (WIPO D2008-1177, September 22, 2008), a WIPO panel was faced with a question of a purported criticism web site. The Complainant, Susan Scheff, claims to be a “parent advocate who assists parents of troubled teens [to] research and identify programs and schools that can assist their troubled teens in getting back on track to a healthy, productive lifestyle.” She holds a registered service mark for SUE SCHEFF and another for SUESCHEFF.COM for information about parenting topics, namely drug and alcohol awareness. The Complainant operates two web sites, namely www.suescheff.com and www.helpyourteens.com.
The domain in dispute was www.sueschefftruth.com. The Respondent, who was identified as Michael Crawford, explained:
[T]hat he registered the Domain Name primarily to “provide information to the public regarding Sue Scheff, her company PURE, and the quality of services offered under that name free of charge to parents.” The website associated with the Domain Name posts Mr. Crawford’s blog comments, media articles, court documents, and postings by readers concerning the Complainant. Typical postings question the Complainant’s objectivity, assert that she or her daughter have financial ties to some of the institutions and programs that the Complainant recommends to parents, and allege that some of these programs have been implicated in charges of child abuse or neglect.
The Panel addressed the first prong of the three-part UDRP test and summarily determined that the accused domain was identical or confusingly similar to the Complainant’s marks. The Panel then focused on the second prong of the UDRP test, namely whether the Respondent had any rights or legitimate interests. The Panel noted, “On the face of it, this appears to be a legitimate noncommercial or fair use of the Domain Name. The Complainant characterizes the remarks on the Respondent’s website as ‘disparaging,’ but the Panel is not required (or equipped) in this UDRP proceeding to determine the truth or falsehood of the criticisms that appear on the website.”
Complainant argued that Respondent used the web site for commercial gain, and specifically linked to Amazon’s web site as well as a place where donations were requested. The Panel reviewed these allegations and explained:
In the Panel’s view, a link to a commercial Amazon website and a solicitation of donations, as formerly found on the Respondent’s website, are themselves insufficient in this instance to establish the Respondent’s intent to misleadingly divert consumers for commercial gain. The website is overwhelmingly devoted to criticism of the Complainant’s interests, methods, and advice, not to commercial offers or solicitations of funds.
Complainant also asserted tarnishment of her trademarks, to which the Panel quoted earlier WIPO decisions that generally rejected those assertions. “Tarnishment in this context refers to such unseemly conduct as linking unrelated pornographic, violent or drug-related images or information to an otherwise wholesome mark. In contrast, fair-use criticism, even if libelous, does not constitute tarnishment and is not prohibited by the Policy, the primary concern of which is cybersquatting. Claims sounding in commercial libel must be brought in other legal venues.”
The Panel then moved onto the last prong of the test, whether the Respondent registered and used the domain in bad faith. The Panel reviewed the Respondent’s web site and evidence from the internet Archive provided by Complainant.
An examination of the Respondent’s website reveals that it is decidedly polemical rather than commercial in nature. The earlier Amazon link and “shopping cart” for donations were both buried at the end of the series of blog posts. They were not prominent, and they were not even visible on the first screen. The Panel on balance finds the Respondent’s explanation credible, that these were weak attempts to help fund the website itself and not a significant purpose of the website.
Ultimately, the Panel found that the Respondent made nominative fair use of the Complainant’s name and the that modifier “truth” casts doubt as to affiliation. As a result, the Panel DENIED the request for transfer.