The Chicago Tribune reports that United is suing Jeremy Cooperstock who owns the customer complaint website Untied.com for trademark infringement.

The lawsuit is in Canadian court (Cooperstock lives in Canada) and I don’t know the first thing about Canada’s intellectual property laws. So I won’t express an opinion on the legal merits of the case.

I first stumbled upon the website in a trade publication in the late 1990s, though I imagine there are folks who simply misspell United and wind up there. Certainly looking at some of the complaints logged on the site it appears as though some people think they are writing to United (and the site did set things up to facilitate that).

The site was redesigned in April (a month after the United.com website was made to look like Continental.com re-designed). Untied.com does look very similar to the United website.

Although now there’s a pop up when you first go there flagging that it is not the United website.

The website uses a logo that is very similar to United’s, albeit with a sad face on the globe and declaring itself a member of an ‘evil alliance’ rather than the Star Alliance.

Cooperstock says the website is parody and protected. My guess is that with these things and most of the time that may not matter, it’s tough to be on the receiving end of a lawsuit from a large entity with significantly greater resources (unless the jurisdiction you’re in has anti-SLAPP legislation that makes it much more costly for a company to pursue litigation against its critics).

As bad as United looks here in going after its critics, I lose a decent amount of sympathy when the piece reveals that Cooperstock suggested that United pay him as a consultant on improving customer service.

The site’s timeline notes that a website of complaints about United was created in August 1996. The owner received his first legal threat from United in January 1997. And it transitioned to the Untied.com domain in April 1997.

One wonders, of course, why now, after all these years? I don’t know the answer. Perhaps it’s the escalation that occurred when Untied.com was redesigned in April to look like the new United website. Perhaps it’s that Continental management takes a harder line on such things than the old United folks did. We may see additional evidence of that if more suits start rolling out of Willis Tower in Chicago, certainly rumor is that other legal nasty-grams are in the queue there.

It’ll be interesting to see how the case now develops.

(HT: Frequently Flying)

  1. CardinalTraveler said,

    The guy certainly discredits himself by asking to be paid by United, and I think he’s gone a bit overboard, but let’s be clear on one thing: There’s enough disclaimers, including a pop up before you even enter the site), that let’s you know it’s not the real United site, so saying that it looks similar is a flimsy argument to me. But then again, I know nothing about intellectual property laws in Canada either.

  2. jfhscott said,

    Well, this is a typical “gripe site”. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gripe_site. And some methods used to attack gripe sites – e.g., defamation may have merit. But copyright infringement, I dunno – too many defenses such as parody exist. Much of this is based on First Amendment concerns, which would not apply in Canada. Will be interesting to see how it plays out.

  3. DaveS said,

    If it was just a spelling issue, I wouldn’t think United would have a case. But the design features are so much a copy of the real site (and indeed will mislead people who reach it by accident) that this definitely does seem to be a copyright violation. I think it will be shut down.

  4. OldManPeabody said,

    Your question about “Why now” is a good one. I’d bet the new laws related to additional trademark protection that were passed in 2006 are a key reason. They provided much broader protection than used to exist for “famous” brands (of which United is certainly one). While it’s true that parody and criticism are very specifically protected even under the new law, I agree with others that the similarity of the site design is a little too much and may push it over the edge. The fact that actual customers have actually been confused and thought they were on the United website hurts him too. That said, it’ll be interesting to see how the court responds to the fact that a pop up clearly identifies that this is NOT United’s site…I’d be hard pressed to suggest a more explicit way of clearing up any confusion (short of making the site look more generic) so it’ll be interesting to see what a court makes of that.

  5. Dave said,

    I would like to see Untied.com more get more attention and this suit will probably do just that. I think the Big Dog is upset but they will not prevail in the courts.

  6. vfrNimc said,

    To the author: get a grip on reality! you “lose sympathy” because the site designer has offered to be a consultant? He’s a full time professor at a highly respected university. Why would anyone think he should DONATE additional time to help United when he has already provided them with quantification analyses and pointed out choke points, training deficiencies, etc. Nowhere does he suggest he is trying to create a consulting client. It was simply an offer, and what I read said he offered them the first hour at no cost. United initially accepted, then later declined.

  7. Gary said,

    @vfrNimc – it seemed United had not sought him out for consulting, that he approached United offering services for a fee, the output of those services would presumably be fewer complaints on a website that the was running. That feels shady to me.

  8. ED said,

    jfhscott said,

    Well, this is a typical “gripe site”. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gripe_site. And some methods used to attack gripe sites – e.g., defamation may have merit. But copyright infringement
    =====================================================

    The complaint is for trademark infringement, which is incontestably correct for United Airlines. By creating an “unfair competition” using logos; in fact, a similar URL that is related to the United TM, there’s no doubt this guy is done.

    And believe me, United’s lawyers must have given him ample time to shut-it-down.

    Well now, his site IS shutdown. Later, untied.com. He’s cuffed (pun intended).

    P.S.: Wikipedia is a catastrophic trademark and copyright infringer disguised to look like an education resource, and it won’t be long before their BW “non-profit” lie kicks Jimmy Wales (creator of the theft site) in his butt.

  9. @UnitedAirlanes is Better at Social Media than @United - View from the Wing - View from the Wing said,

    [...] account is clearly a parody, in the vein of Untied.com, United [...]

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