How Far Is Too Far To Police Your Website?
October 12, 2010 by Barbara Berschler
In a previous blog, “Selling Over the Internet May Require Knowing the Law in All 50 States,” I considered a real life situation that exposed an Internet business owner based in New Mexico, who sold cigarettes throughout the United States, to a lawsuit filed in Illinois. There, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found that the seller had purposely directed its wares into Illinois, so that sufficient contact with the state existed to give a federal court personal jurisdiction to hear the case. (http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1538180.html?DCMP=NWL-pro_technology .) You may well ask, “Is there any limit to that kind of ‘long-arm’ jurisdictional reach?” Another recent decision, also by the Seventh Circuit, helps draw some useful distinctions and define some of the limits to a court’s jurisdiction in this highly mobile, Internet era.
A large Chicago-based medical company that provided on-site anesthesia services in various cities throughout the USA (“Mobile/Chicago”) also owned a federally registered trademark, MOBILE ANESTHESIOLOGISTS. In 2003, Mobile/Chicago registered the domain name http://www.mobileanesthesiologists.com . In 2008, a doctor (“Mobile/Houston”), who offered similar anesthesia services in the Houston area, launched his website using the domain name http://mobileanesthesia.com/Home_page.html .
Not much difference between the phrases “mobile anesthesia” and “mobile anesthesiologists,” right? Not surprisingly, Mobile/Chicago sued Mobile/Houston in Illinois under the federal Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (the “ACCPA”) alleging that the Houston doctor was using a domain name that was confusingly similar to its registered trademark. Never addressing the question as to whether the doctor’s mark was confusingly similar to that of Mobile/Chicago, the Seventh Circuit upheld the trial court’s decision to dismiss the case for lack of personal jurisdiction over the defendant. The full text of the opinion can be found at http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-7th-circuit/1539920.html?DCMP=NWL-pro_technology .
What factors existed to cause such a different outcome to that which resulted in the cigarette case? Although the Mobile/Houston website could be viewed by Illinois residents, the site made clear that the services were being offered only in the Houston area. Furthermore, the doctor was licensed only in Texas, where his professional activities all took place. His contacts to Illinois consisted of his visiting there for vacation and the fact that some professional organizations of which he was a member were located in Illinois.
The Circuit Court did not view these kinds of activities as of sufficient connection to the state to give an Illinois court the authority to assert personal jurisdiction over the doctor. Nor was the fact that Mobile/Chicago had sent a “cease and desist” letter enough to show that the doctor’s continued operation of his website was an intentional directing of tortuous activities to Illinois.
Thus, while the outcome of this case gives some guidance as to what kinds of activities would be insufficient for a court to obtain personal jurisdiction over a defendant located in another state, the decision did not address the underlying substantive issue of whether “mobile anesthesia” and “mobile anesthesiologists” were so similar as to violate the ACCPA. I wonder whether the Houston doctor really should draw much comfort from the fact that at least, as to the actual defense of his choice of domain name, the matter would be heard on his home turf should Mobile/Illinois decide to continue pursuit of its claim.