Playboy Isn't Taking Parody Site Lying Down

Article excerpt

Fearing widespread online trademark abuse, the company threatens legal action against Playdog.com, a site for dog-lovers.

As the Internet reshapes traditional ideas about the scope of copyright and trademark protection, it is leaving a wake of unsettled legal issues. But one publisher--alarmed about the potential for cyber abuse of its famous commercial stamp--is coming down hard on an alleged offender.

Playboy Enterprises Inc. is threatening to file a trademark infringement suit against Playdog.com--a parody Web site for dog lovers. A Playboy spokes-woman says the company is not amused that Steve Sackman, a Milltown, New Jersey, bartender, has mimicked the company's trademarked logo, and included the phrases "Playdog of the Month" and "Playdog of the Year" on his Web site, which Playboy considers to be a commercial venture.

Playboy's stance comes as publishers and legal experts alike have become increasingly concerned with the ease by which companies can steal trademarks on the Web. And because the Web is growing so rapidly, and the potential for abuse is so great, publishers must be ready to protect their brand names, observers say.

"If we let one guy do it, then everybody else is going to follow--and we really will have a watered down trademark," says the Playboy spokeswoman, Angela DePaul.

Warren Olsen, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer whose firm specializes in intellectual-property law, agrees. "Publishers are particularly susceptible to Web sites trying to trade on their good will," he says. "I think publishers and all owners of famous trademarks are going to have to be vigilant. They are going to have to review the Internet, just as they have reviewed other publications in the past."

Sackman, however, can't understand what all the fuss is about. He insists that his site's editorial and products couldn't possibly be confused with anything really offered by Playboy. "We're doing a parody and we're going after a completely different market," he says. "It's absurd that Playboy even cares."

The site features a red "Playdog" logo that looks a lot like Playboy's logo with the tagline "Entertainment for Dogs ... And Their Humans!" Features include the "Playdog of the Month," a photo gallery in which dog's privates are censored with a "Playdog" bone across them. And the site's "editor" is Spot Hephner.

But Playboy says it sees too many similarities in the playdog.com site to let sleeping dogs lie. "We did see the site and it's very cute," says DePaul. "But we had an actual letter of confusion, and when we start to have people confused, we need to try to stop that so that we don't lose the value of our trademark."

Parody or commercial venture?

DePaul says Sackman is also selling merchandise on his site, using a font that is similar to one used by Playboy. "That's where it legally crosses the line between being a parody and now becoming a commercial venture," she says.

There is some question, however, as to whether this confusion would hold up should the case reach litigation. "For trademark infringement to exist, you have to go beyond simply stealing another person's trademark," says Olsen. "You have to prove that customers seeing the two trademarks are likely to be confused. …