Lawsuit Over User-generated Reviews : Fair?

by francine Hardaway on March 3, 2008

What do you do when you run a site that is composed of user-generated reviews and one company, whose products get bad reviews, begins to spam your site with fake reviews, comments linking to fake websites, and then turns around and sues you for trademark infringement because you have used their product name?

That is what is happening to, the startup in Seattle that I’m blogging for. I’m not involved in the suit in any way, but apparently this company is lawsuit happy, and the founder has advised me not to blog about the lawuit on RealSelf.

That’s enough to infuriate me, and to make me want to raise this issue in a broader setting. If, for instance, this were a movie review site, and the user-reviewers panned the movie, would the producers have a right to sue the site?

And what do we do about all those fake comments in response to real reader reviews? Comments made by shils. RealSelf has been able to trace some of them back to the company that filed the lawsuit.

This is gaming the system in the worst possible way, and then taking a startup to court and making a founder spend negative time and energy.

Is there case law for this yet? Will this lawsuit establish it?

The embargo on the press release for RealSelf’s countersuit has just expired, so here is where you can read the details:

As most social media types are at Graphic Social Patterns this week, I hope I get some good advice and feedback from the community.

Update: Real Self’s founder posts about the lawsuit on his blog.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Scott Monty March 3, 2008 at 12:12 pm

I think the first step is, as you say, to identify the problem posts and remove them.

Beyond that, I would imagine that RealSelf might be concerned about liability issues – i.e., what their responsibility is for bad user reviews.

But there’s actually a recent case from a federal district court in Florida that addresses the issue of a site’s liability with respect to bad reviews. The short story is RealSelf has nothing to worry about: according to the court, the federal Communications Decency Act protects site operators from liability.

If you’d like the MediaPost article on it, you can go here:

That’s about all the information I have on this topic; I’m not a lawyer (but I do play one on TV) ;-)

Ontario Emperor March 4, 2008 at 2:29 pm

I followed the link to the RealSelf blog and read portions of Lifestyle Lift’s complaint, and the most damaging thing that I could find was that Realself apparently linked to a Michigan doctor who claimed to be a Lifestyle Lift doctor but wasn’t. Perhaps there’s something buried in the legal mumbo jumbo that I missed, but that’s a pretty flimsy charge upon which to base a legal complaint.

I read your post at about the same time that I was reading a post out of Finland, where a Finnish director was suing an American-born blogger on a variety of charges, including:

– calling the director a “big fat liar,” which was legally construed as a weight-based insult

– referring to the director as a “conservative”

– being responsible for the edits made to the director’s Wikipedia profile

– being responsible for the director’s newspaper business falling so low he can’t see the balance sheet (sorry, still working on Music Man lines)

When Kouros didn’t show at the preliminary hearing, I concluded…well, I don’t want you to get sued, but let’s just say that Kouros was probably busy using a very wonderful skin improvement product which shall remain nameless.

Francine Hardaway March 4, 2008 at 2:51 pm

So annoying that people waste an entrepreneur’s and a court system’s time with stuff like this. Yours is hilarious; makes for entertaining reading.

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