Internet Gripe Sites at the Crossroads of Trademarks and Free Speech

Article excerpt


The primary subject matter of this case concerns trademark law. Secondary issues examine trademark infringement, dilution, cybersquatting, commercial disparagement, and freedom of expression.

The case has a difficulty of level four, appropriate for senior level courses. The case is designed to be taught in three class hours and is expected to require a minimum of six hours of outside preparation. The case may be used as an in-class or take home assignment. Also, the case may be assigned as an individual student or student team project.


The Internet has made possible another forum by which dissatisfied consumers can vent their complaints about poor service or purchases of substandard products. In the typical scenario, a disgruntled consumer purchases a domain name and sets up a website, known as a "gripesite," on which to publicize their complaints and criticism about the merchant. In turn, merchants have responded with litigation to protect their trademark rights and silence the consumer. Recent cases arising from this strategy of creating gripesites have pitted the merchant's trademarks and protection of its goodwill against the dissemination of critical information about the merchant and the consumer's freedom of speech.

This case study presents a multifaceted factual setting that raises numerous issues relating to trademark infringement, dilution, cybersquatting, commercial disparagement, and freedom of expression. Consumer decided to have new carpet installed in her living and dining room. She telephoned a nationally recognized home improvement - home furnishing company. Consumer scheduled an appointment for a salesperson to come to her home to measure the floors and provide her with carpet samples. The salesperson did not keep the initial appointment and did not contact consumer to let her know that the appointment would not be kept. Consumer was unhappy with this behavior but she, nevertheless, scheduled another appointment. The salesperson kept this second appointment but was approximately one hour late. Consumer was frustrated with the appointment mishaps but decided that since the salesperson was at her home she may as well have the rooms measured and look at the carpet samples. Consumer found a sample that was the perfect color and nap. The cost estimate for the carpet was also comparable to estimates that consumer had received from other retailers. Consumer ordered the carpet and made arrangements to have the carpet installed the next day.

The installation of the carpet went smoothly except that a silver runner was installed instead of a gold runner as specified in the work order. Consumer paid for the carpet and installation with installers promise to return the next day and install the proper runner. The installer failed to return the next day as promised. Within a few days of the installation, consumer noticed several seams in the carpet had become visible and that un-even surfaces had begun to appear. Following several frustrating attempts to schedule the return of an installer and failed attempts to correct the problems, consumer sent a letter rescinding the carpet contract and requesting the return of the $3,000 she had paid for the carpet. Consumer's request was denied and attempts to settle the matter proved fruitless.

Consumer decided to take several courses of action. One strategy resulted in consumer registering seven different internet domain names. The domain names included the name of the home improvement company in varying forms. Consumer began using one of the internet sites. The site contained a statement summarizing consumer's entire dealings with the improvement company and her dissatisfaction with the company's actions. Consumer was contacted several times by legal representatives of the improvement company and was asked that she cease and desist from using the company's name in any domain names. Consumer refused to discuss the matter and the improvement company eventually brought suit against consumer alleging, trademark infringement, dilution, false designation, unfair competition, cybersquatting, various state law claims, and libel. …


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