Complaint Websites use of Parody

The Federal Court decision by Mr. Justice Phelan on June 23, 2017 in the case of United Airlines, Inc v. Jeremy Cooperstock provides some guidance to persons considering establishing complaint websites.

Cooperstock operated a complaint website under the domain name UNTIED.com, which he registered and launched on or about April 24, 1997. Cooperstock chose the domain name UNTIED.com as a play on the word “United”, so as to highlight the disconnection and disorganization that he perceived in the company.  UNTIED.com operated as a consumer criticism website where visitors  could find information on United, submit complaints about United, and read complaints about United dating back to 1998 in the database of complaints.

Following a redesign of UNTIED.com in September 2011, United became aware of a strong resemblance between UNTIED.com and the United Website. UNTIED.com was updated again in June 2012 to mirror the United Website design launched in March 2012.  United contacted Cooperstock, and Cooperstock made certain alterations to UNTIED.com.  He changed the colour of the T and I in the Untied Logo to red (from blue) and changed a frown on the Frowning Globe Design to red (from blue).  He also added a disclaimer and a pop-up dialogue box to the website indicating that this was not the website of United. The disclaimer, stating “(This is not the website of United Airlines)”, was placed at the top of the website in small black type – next to  a graphic identifying “Untied” as “An Evil Alliance Member”.

Justice Phelan noted that parody and satire are not defences to trademark infringement.  Justice Phelan quoted from the Green v Schwarz case, “notwithstanding that the Defendant is obviously spoofing the Plaintiff’s trade mark, he is also cashing in on the goodwill that the Plaintiff has obtained for its trade mark”.    A Trademark confusion analysis was then performed.
“ Cooperstock’s obvious imitation of the United Marks and the United Website is meant to cause visitors to associate UNTIED.com with the United. The small details differentiating the marks are less important than the general appearance of the marks and of the websites. Cooperstock attempted to differentiate the two Globe Design marks by “zooming in” on the image to show that his globe mark included a red frown. This would not be the approach of the hurried consumer with an imperfect recollection. Further, consumers would not be engaging in a side-by-side comparison of the two marks, particularly if they are unaware that there is any need to be diligent in this regard (i.e., if they are not aware that a “spoof” website exists).  I find that there was ample evidence adduced to support a finding that there is a likelihood of confusion.  The changes that Cooperstock made to the United Marks were small and were designed to maintain his core purpose: identification of his website with United.”

Justice Phelan noted that although parody is not a defence to trademark infringement. parody may be a defence to copyright infringement in that parody is now an allowable purpose under s 29 of the Copyright Act, which  reads:
29 Fair dealing for the purpose of research, private study, education, parody or satire does not infringe copyright. (emphasis added)

Mr. Justice Phelan  held that the alterations to  United’s copyright materials  constituted parody:
“Parody should be understood as having two basic elements: the evocation of an existing work while exhibiting noticeable differences and the expression of mockery or humour. In my view, UNTIED.com falls within the definition of parody described above: it evokes existing works (the United Website, the United Logo, and the Globe Design) while showing some differences (such as content and disclaimers), and it expresses mockery (and criticism) of the United.”

Justice Phelan then  considered whether the use of parody in this context was “fair dealing”; as Cooperstock  was required to prove that his dealing with the work of United  had been fair in order to obtain the protection of s. 29 of the Copyright Act.
“It is unclear why substantial copying of the United Website or the other copyrighted works was necessary in order to meet the parodic goal of humorously criticizing the United; as discussed above, parody requires humour, whereas Cooperstock’s website was simply mean-spirited. The minimal use of certain parodic elements in the past (i.e., “fly the unfriendly skies” and the wordplay between “united” and “untied”) present an example of an alternative to the current dealing. Indeed, if the Cooperstock truly wished the best outcome for the United’s passengers, it is unclear why he would run any risk of confusing passengers.   In my view, it is the substantial copying of the United’s copyrighted material that is having a harmful impact, not the criticism contained on UNTIED.com. Negative commentary regarding the United abounds on the internet. United is not so much concerned with the informational aspect of UNTIED.com (which may lead customers to purchase tickets with other airlines) as it is with the potential that customers will believe they are interacting with the United when they are actually interacting with UNTIED.com (which may, in turn, cause customers to believe that the United is unprofessional or that it does not respond to complaints).”
In his reasons for Judgement, Justice Phelan summarized Mr. Cooperstock’s position as follows:
“Parody is not simply a defence to copyright infringement – it is also an aspect of free speech. However, like all free speech, it is not unrestricted.  Cooperstock’s website meets the first step of the CCH test, as it is for the allowable purpose of parody, but it does not meet the second step of the test. The questionable purpose of the dealing, amount of the dealing, and effect of the dealing all weigh in favour of the conclusion that this dealing is not fair.”
“in this case, Cooperstock sailed too close to the wind – and he was put up on the rocks”.