March 16th, 2003
For immediate release:
Contact: Trygve Lode
Software company threatens to sue over satirical webpage on bad website design.
Trygve (pronounced "TREEG-vah") Lode has been writing short humor articles for twenty years. His articles have appeared in his own randomly self-published humor digest, "The Unnatural Enquirer," written up in "Yahoo Internet Life" and other magazines, and a sampling of these articles are available on his own website at http://www.trygve.com/enquirer.html
In June of 2000, Trygve Lode registered the domain name "autotroll.com." A "troll" on the internet is someone who wanders into discussion boards and newsgroups with the intent of stirring up trouble. The original plan for autotroll.com was to create an "automated troll," who would respond to visitors with parodies of the behavior exhibited by real internet "trolls." Initially, however, Trygve put up a simple page about a fictitious company that specializes in bad website design, but since the "automated troll" was never completed, the page on website annoyances stayed. (http://www.autotroll.com -- it's a quick read; it fits easily on two printed pages.)
Fast-forward three years: On March 14th, 2003, Trygve received a certified letter from Auto-trol Technology Corporation, also of Colorado. Auto-trol Technology Corporation makes Computer-Aided Drafting and document management software. In the letter, Allyson Kissell, who introduces herself as Auto-trol Technology's "Corporate Secretary as well as the Manager of the Legal Department," asserts that Trygve's use of "autotroll.com" violates their trademark rights and that he is "intentionally trading on the goodwill of Auto-trol by using a trademark that is identical or confusingly similar to Auto-trol's mark, Auto-trol."
Kissell's letter goes on to threaten numerous and severe legal penalties "including, but not limited to, preliminary and permanent injunctive relief, money damages, a defendant's profits, provisions for the destruction or confiscation of infringing products and promotional materials and, where intentional infringement is shown, attorneys' fees and possible treble money damages." Kissell concludes the letter by demanding that Trygve "immediately cease and desist any further use of the domain name and any other variations of the mark thereof in connection with your website and in any other medium, and provide Auto-trol with written assurances and confirmation no later than March 25, 2003 that you have halted the use of the infringing domain name, that you will transfer the domain name to Auto-trol no later than April 8, 2003" or Auto-trol Technology Corporation will take legal action.
Ironically, despite Auto-trol Technology Corporation's repeated claims in its letter and on its own website that "Auto-trol" is their registered trademark, it isn't. "Auto-trol" has been registered by the Wagstaff Battery Mfg. Co, of Oregon, and by AVL List GmbH of Austria-but not by Auto-trol Technology Corporation. "Autotrol" (without the hyphen) has been registered by Autotrol Corporation of Wisconsin. However, the Auto-trol Technology Corporation has trademarked the phrase "Auto-trol Technology" and the scope of this trademark is limited to:
"Computer software that enables the creation, distribution and management of documents, data and illustrations, namely, electronic document management, product data management, network management, asset management, technical illustration, and mapping in the fields of engineering, publishing, discrete and process manufacturing, and operations and maintenance divisions of manufacturing organizations."
Nowhere in this trademark does it mention humor, satire, or even website design, whether bad or otherwise. Trademark law does not prevent one from using a similar name for a product that's beyond the scope covered by an existing trademark registration. Trademarking a phrase does not automatically give one trademark rights to each word in that phrase.
Additionally, there are several unrelated companies in other states of the US doing business under the name of "Auto-trol" or "Autotrol." At least some of these companies have websites which, unsurprisingly, have names similar to "auto-trol." "Autotroll" (with two 'l's) is also the name of a software program used in role-playing games and a system used for child support enforcement in Washington State.
With all of this, a small humor page on the net seems an odd target for legal action. The "AutoTroll" mentioned on the webpage in question is not a real company, has no products or services for sale, and the page does not even offer any contact information of any kind. It's hard to argue that www.autotroll.com is competing with Auto-trol Technology Corporation or that it is "intentionally trading on the goodwill of Auto-trol." However, since the page in question is not, and never has been, a real company, at least it would be simple to hand over its profits and its "infringing products and promotional materials"-since, of course, they don't exist.
Update March 21st, 2003: Darlene Cypser, Esq., writes an official response to Auto-trol Technology Corporation, pointing out the lack of a legal basis for their claims in either statute or case law. The full text of her response is here.
Update April 12th, 2003: Auto-trol Technology Corporation responds to Darlene Cypser's letter of March 21st, 2003.In a remarkably unprofessional style peppered with gratuitous personal insults, Pantea M. Garroussi of Davis, Graham, & Stubbs, LLP, representing Auto-trol Technology Corporation dismisses Darlene Cypser's factual and legal objections to Auto-trol Technology's claims by stating that the legal tests for trademark infringement as defined by law and in recent court decisions are "irrelevant,"
Pantea further asserts that bringing Auto-trol Technology Corporation's legal threats to the attention of the public is an act of copyright violation as well as "vengeful defiance" and demands the removal of all copies of said threats from the internet as well as from Trygve's personal computer, and the destruction of any paper copies that may exist. Pantea states that making her letter publically available would also be in violation of copyright law.