United Continental Holdings sues complaint website, Untied.com
Nov 29, 2012 (Menafn - Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --United Continental Holdings has sued a Canadian professor who maintains Untied.com, a 15-year-old website airing complaints from disgruntled United Airlines passengers and employees.
Two suits filed in Canadian courts allege the site violates the airline's copyright and trademarks because it looks like the United.com website. The airline also alleges the complaint site violates the privacy of senior airline employees by posting contact information for those workers.
However, the site's operator says the airline is trying to bully and intimidate him because his website is critical of United.
In the lawsuits, United said it is not trying to prevent Jeremy Cooperstock from operating a website where people can express their views about United, but is instead trying to protect its intellectual property, such as its logo, and trying to alleviate confusion by United customers who might think they are filing a complaint with the airline on Untied.com
"We are not requesting the website be shut down," said Megan McCarthy, United spokeswoman.
It was only after an April redesign of Cooperstock's site, which made it look more like the new United.com, that the airline asked him to modify his site so customers would not be confused, McCarthy said, adding that the airline tried to resolve the matter directly with Cooperstock before opting to sue.
Cooperstock, 45, an engineering professor at McGill University in Montreal, vowed to fight the lawsuits, which he calls SLAPP suits, standing for strategic lawsuit against public participation. Such meritless suits are filed to put a strain on the defendants' time and money so they cease the criticism.
Cooperstock claims the effectiveness of his site is the reason for the lawsuits.
"They are trying to shut down my site instead of dealing with their problems," he said. "If they had put as much effort into improving their service as into these SLAPP suits, there'd be no reason for the website."
The site claims to have "collected more than 25,000 passenger complaints against United, along with hundreds of postings from mistreated employees."
Indeed, United has had more than its share of customer service problems in 2012. Especially during the summer, United had rampant delays and cancellations following a switchover to a new passenger reservation system. The problems were so bad they hurt the airline's third-quarter profits as many customers fled to competitors, United officials told Wall Street analysts.
Companies or organizations suing a critic is not new, especially since the rise of the Internet gave individuals a larger platform to voice their displeasure, which can inflict more harm on a company, said Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University.
In the U.S., whether a suit is a SLAPP often depends on state law, and not all states have anti-SLAPP legislation, which generally helps a defendant get a meritless case dismissed early in the process, Hermes said. Some states, for example, focus on an individual's right to participate freely in government and not specifically on criticizing companies.
SLAPP suits more often involve claims of defamation than violation of copyright or trademarks, the issues in the United case, he said.
In the United Airlines lawsuits, United said Cooperstock redesigned his website in April to look much like United.com. The color scheme, font, layout, logo and globe design are "confusingly similar" to United's and difficult to distinguish from the airline site, United alleges.
Cooperstock said his site looks similar because it is a parody and that nobody would think it's the real United Airlines site -- especially after he recently included a pop-up window that asks visitors to acknowledge that they understand it's not the airline site.
United also wants Cooperstock to remove workplace contact information for United employees, who are not customer service employees but have been harassed at work by angry customers. Cooperstock said the same contact information is readily available via Internet search engines or in public documents.
The lawsuits, filed by United and Continental airlines, were filed Nov. 19, in the Federal Court of Canada and Superior Court of Quebec.
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