The Pacifica Foundation recently dropped plans to sue the operators of three Web sites critical the nonprofit broadcasting group for using the Pacifica name and call letters within their Internet domain names.
The decision allows the three sites savepacifica.net, wbai.net and freewpfw.org to operate without fear of legal repercussions from Pacifica, at least for now.
Paul Levy, an attorney with the consumer-rights group Public Citizen, hailed Pacifica's decision as "a point on the scoreboard for First Amendment rights."
"Companies are starting to learn that they can't bring these cases, because they're going to lose," said Levy, who aided the three Web sites in this battle over domain names. "The message is slowly getting out that free speech rights on the Internet are sacrosanct," Levy added in a news release.
Over the past two years, a number of corporations have waged legal attacks against critics who use trademarks in their domain names. Companies ranging from automobile dealerships to airline companies have sought court relief in shutting down sites that criticize their business practices.
As a basis of their legal claims, the companies cite the two-year-old Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, a law designed to protect businesses from "cybersquatting," a practice of securing domain names of well-known trademarks by nontrademark holders who try to profit by selling the names to the trademark owners.
Specifically, the law, signed by President Clinton in 1999, prohibits "cyberpiracy," whereby someone uses a protected trademark within a domain name with a "bad faith intent to profit."
In recent months, several companies have backed away from such lawsuits or settled out of court.
Last week, the Ricart Automotive Group, which operates four dealerships in Columbus, Ohio, settled a lawsuit with a graduate student who launched several Web sites with the Ricart name after disagreements over a lease agreement for a pick-up truck. The settlement allows the student to continue operating the sites under different Web addresses.
In another case, Alitalia Airlines withdrew a lawsuit against alitaliasucks.com, a site created by a passenger upset with how the airline company handled his lost-luggage complaint.
The Pacifica incident arose in the wake of an ongoing conflict between foundation officials and station employees and members over the network's programming goals and other future plans. Several sites popped up on the Web over the past year detailing the frustration of Pacifica's critics.
Pacifica threatened to file claims against savepacifica.net, wbai.net and freewpfw.org, claiming that the operators had violated its trademark. Officials said such names might confuse listeners and stifle Pacifica from doing its business on the Internet.
In a Feb. 15 letter to the three Web sites, the law firm of Epstein, Becker and Green demanded that they cease the use of the Pacifica name and call letters, claiming they amounted to "blatant trademark infringement, unfair competition, dilution, and may raise other causes of action under state and federal law."
Levy said such claims were baseless because none of the Web sites attempted to promote confusion in order to make a profit. Also, none of the operators had attempted to sell the domain names to Pacifica.
"Pacifica threatened to bring this suit because it wanted to burden its critics with the time and expense of preparing a legal defense," said Robbie Osman, member of Friends of Free Speech Radio, in a news release. "I would have hoped that before the Foundation threatened to sue, someone in the Pacific national office might have remembered that promoting fair and open debate has been at the very heart of Pacifica's mission since it was founded.
"By threatening this baseless suit, the Foundation has proved the most damning charge their critics have made against them," Osman said.
Officials with the Pacifica Foundation didn't return calls placed to their attorney's office.
"After observing the Pacifica Foundation up close, any positive actions they take must be viewed with suspicion," said Patty Heffley of WBAI Listener Network in a news release. "The good news here is that Pacifica isn't going to squander the listeners' money on an unwarranted suit."