Monday, August 27, 2012

Marc Lurie/ Wins Reverse Domain Name Hijacking Claim Against AirFX, LLC on Summary Judgment

AirFX,LLC (“Defendant”), the owner of the trademark AirFX, suffered a defeat last week in its attempt to “acquire” (or as some might say “hijack”) the domain name from its current registrant, Marc Lurie (“Lurie” or “Plaintiff” ).   [Note: There were many articles about this dispute last year when the court denied Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss – see herehere, here, and here for a small sampling].

The domain name was originally registered by Bestinfo on March 21, 2003.  In June 2005, Air Systems Engineering, Inc. ("ASE") filed a trademark registration application for the mark AirFX for “motorcycles, vehicle parts, namely, shock absorbers, and suspension systems for motorcycles, bicycles, automobiles, and powered vehicles.”  The mark registered in March 2007.  In April 2011, ASE assigned its trademark rights to a wholly owned subsidiary, Defendant AirFX,LLC.

Lurie originally was involved in operating skydiving wind tunnel businesses under the name "SkyVenture," but later decided to use the name AIRFX in connection with a new line of wind tunnels (despite having found ASE’s application to register AIRFX after conducting a trademark search).  Lurie acquired the from Bestinfo for $2,100 on February 2, 2007, but never posted any content or created a website – and instead has a typical landing page (or “splash page” as defined in the opinion) put up by the registrar,  While the landing page does have links to third party advertisements, Lurie maintained that he drived no revenue from such advertisements (and Defendant never provided any evidence to the contrary).  After leaving SkyVenture, Lurie was bound by a non-compete agreement prohibiting him from developing his own line of wind tunnels until 2010.  However, Lurie never sold any product under the brand AIRFX nor conducted any advertising, marketing, or manufacturing activities.  Lurie also never sold or offered to sell suspension systems for motorcycles, or any other motorcycle-related products.

Defendant contacted Lurie in 2008 regarding the purchase of  While the partie dispute the terms of the offer at that time, no agreement was reached.  In 2011, Defendant filed a domain dispute complaint before the National Arbitration Forum.  On May 16, 2011, the arbitration panel ruled in favor of Defendant and ordered that GoDaddy transfer to Defendant.  See AirFX, LLC v. ATTN AIRFX.COM, Claim Number FA1104001384655 (NAF May 16, 2011)).

Lurie sought relief against the ordered transfer by filing a complaint which included a claim for reverse domain name hijacking under 15 U.S.C. § 1114(2)(D)(v).  Defendant counterclaimed with claims of cybersquatting and trademark infringement.  The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment.  On August 23, 2012, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona ruled in favor of Lurie by finding as a matter of law that Lurie was not liable for Defendant’s counterclaims of cybersquatting or  trademark infringement, and accordingly, Lurie’s Motion for Summary Judgment on its reverse domain name hijacking claim was granted.  See et al. v. AirFX LLC, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 120285   (D. Ariz. August 23, 2012) (order here).

In deciding Defendant’s cybersquatting claim, the issue centered around the meaning of “registration” (ed.-an issue near and dear to my heart).  The court detailed the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in GoPets Ltd. v. Hise, 657 F.3d 1024, 1030 (9th Cir. 2011) which clarified the meaning of "registration" and found that a party’s re-registration and continued ownership of a domain name that a party had registered long before a trademark owner registered its trademarks does not violate the cybersquatting statute (prior blog post here). 

Defendant attempted to distinguish GoPets because in that case, the original domain name registrant transferred the domain name to an entity that he co-owned.  In contrast, Lurie purchased from an unrelated third party.  Defendant argued that the purpose of the ACPA would be undermined if a cybersquatter who purchases a domain name in bad faith is immune from liability simply because the domain name he purchased existed before a mark was  distinctive.

However, the court found otherwise: 
Nothing in the language of GoPets indicates that it should be read as narrowly as defendant suggests. GoPets did not distinguish between transfers of a domain name to related parties and other kinds of domain name transfers. To the contrary, GoPets broadly reasoned that if an original owner's rights associated with a domain name were lost upon transfer to "another owner," the rights to many domain names would become "effectively inalienable," a result the intention of which was not reflected in either the structure or the text of the ACPA.

In short, the court, following GoPets, found that it was undisputed that was initially registered on March 21, 2003 by Bestinfo, ASE’s first use in commerce of the AirFX mark was June 2005, and Lurie purchased on February 2, 2007 – and thus, Lurie’s registration of in February 2007 "was not a registration within the meaning of § 1125(d)(1)” and because Bestinfo registered long before ASE registered its mark, Lurie’s  registration and ownership of does not violate the cybersquatting statute.  The court granted summary judgment on Defendant’s cybersquatting counterclaim in favor of Lurie. 

As for Defendant’s counterclaim for trademark infringement, the court focused on the fundamental issue of whether Lurie used the mark “in commerce” (noting that “If a person's use of a mark is noncommercial, it does not violate the Lanham Act.”).  Defendant’s sole argument of Lurie’s commercial use centered on particular allegations and admissions.  However, the court found no dispute that Lurie had never sold an AirFX product, have no advertising or marketing activities, have no manufacturing activities, never developed a website for, and never sold any AirFX products or services on such website.  The court further found that Lurie’s limited activity of some pre-sales efforts and preliminary research, viewing such facts in the light most favorable to Defendant, was still insufficient to constitute commercial use of a mark.
Although plaintiffs have developed a brand name, registered a domain name, started  researching the design of their wind tunnels and approached potential investors and  customers, plaintiffs have not sold, manufactured, advertised, or marketed any product  bearing the AirFX mark. Defendant points to no other facts to establish plaintiffs'  commercial use of the AirFX mark.

As such, without raising any genuine issue  of material fact as to whether plaintiffs' use of the mark was commercial, the court found as a matter of law that no commercial use existed and therefore, there could be no trademark infringement as a matter of law and granted summary judgment on Defendant’s trademark infringement counterclaim in favor of Lurie. 

Finally, with respect to Lurie’s claim for reverse domain name hijacking, the only issue was whether Lurie’s registration of the domain name was “not unlawful."
Because we have concluded that plaintiffs cannot be liable under the ACPA for cybersquatting as a matter of law, and because plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment on the trademark infringement claim, we conclude that there is no genuine issue of fact as to whether plaintiffs' use of the domain name is lawful.

Defendant tried to argue that Lurie should not be entitled to such equitable relief because Lurie “conducted the litigation in unprecedented, and unprofessional ways.” [ed.—there are two sides to every story, and I’m sure Lurie has some stories about the actions of Defendant’s counsel as well].  However, the court noted the clear mandate of 15 U.S.C. § 1114(2)(D)(v), which allows the court to “grant injunctive relief to the domain name registrant, including the reactivation of the domain name or transfer of the domain name to the domain name registrant."  As such, the court ordered that the remain registered with Lurie.

The court’s final words was to note that “[b]oth parties argue that this case is ‘exceptional’ under the Lanham Act, warranting an award of attorneys' fees. We will address a motion for attorneys' fees if and when one is before us.”   Stay tuned . . . 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Stephens Media Wins $200,000 Default Judgment Over Alleged Trademark Infringement of “Best of Las Vegas”

[After all these years, they still have do not have a category for “Best Las Vegas Trademark Attorney Blog” – or perhaps my dearth of blog posting in 2012 took me out of the running this year]

Back in 2009 (when I had much more time to blog on a more regular basis), I wrote about the three separate trademark infringement lawsuits filed by Stephens Media LLC (“Stephens Media”), the owner of the Las Vegas newspaper The Las Vegas Review Journal, against three separate companies over their alleged use of the term “BEST OF LAS VEGAS.”   See previous blog entry here.

In the case against one of the companies, CitiHealth LLC (“CitiHealth”), on August 6, 2012, U.S. District Court Judge Miranda Du issued a decision on a motion for default judgment filed by Stephens Media.  See Stephens Media LLC v. CitiHealth LLC, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 109431 (D. Nev. August 6, 2012).  What is interesting is how long it took for the case to get to this point.

The complaint against CitiHealth was originally filed on December 2, 2009, and related to the company’s publication of a magazine in December 2008 called “Healthy Living Las Vegas” that included the phrase on the cover “Best of Las Vegas.”  When CitiHealth failed to answer the complaint, a default was entered by the Clerk on March 24, 2010.  So why didn’t Stephens Media seek a default judgment at that time?  Well, the complaint was originally filed by Steve Gibson and his former firm Gibson Lowry and Burris.  Steve Gibson is also better known as the CEO of Righthaven LLC, the copyright enforcement company established by Gibson and Stephens Media to file lawsuits against websites that infringed on copyrights associated with Las Vegas Review Journal articles.  [I certainly don’t have the time or energy to go into all of the details of the Righthaven-saga in this post and will instead defer to those websites (here and here) that have tracked all things Righthaven and which will give any interested party the necessary background to understand what may have caused Mr. Gibson to be a little distracted during 2010 and 2011 as well as what may have caused  a rift between Mr. Gibson and Stephens Media].

Over a year went by without any follow-up after the entry of default against CitiHealth.  Finally, on May 24, 2012, the Court issued a Order to Show Cause, as to why the case should not be dismissed for failure to prosecute.  Six days later, Stephens Media filed a Motion to Substitute Attorney and subsequently informed the Court that that it had retained new counsel and intended to seek a preliminary injunction and default judgment.  On July 2, 2012, through new counsel Gordon Silver, Stephens Media filed the Motion for Default Judgment.  On July 13, 2012, Kenneth Shepherd, the co-owner of CitiHealth, notified both the Court and Stephens Media’s counsel that Healthy Living no longer exists and has not existed for the past 3 years and that CitiHealth had dissolved on May 9, 2012 and that the co-owners of the company had had filed for personal bankruptcy.

The Court nevertheless proceeded to analyze Stephens Media’s motion for default judgment under the Eitel factors established by the Ninth Circuit:

"The Ninth Circuit has identified the following factors as relevant to the exercise of the court's discretion in determining whether to grant default judgment: (1) the possibility of prejudice to the plaintiff; (2) the merits of the plaintiff's substantive claims; (3) the sufficiency of the complaint; (4) the sum of money at stake in the action; (5) the possibility of a dispute concerning material facts; (6) whether the default was due to the excusable neglect; and (7) the strong policy underlying the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure favoring decisions on the merits. Eitel v. McCool, 782 F.2d 1470, 1471--72 (9th Cir. 1986); see also Trustees of Elec. Workers Health and Welfare Trust v. Campbell, No. 07-724, 2009 WL 3255169 (D. Nev. Oct. 7, 2009)."
Despite CitiHealth's dissolution, the Court found that CitiHealth's failure to appear in this action and the likelihood that it will never respond to this action creates a high possibility of prejudice to Plaintiff in the absence of a default judgment.  The Court found that the Complaint did sufficiently state claims for relief (under the Rule 8 liberal pleading standards).

With respect to the amount of money at stake, Stephens Media sought $200,000 pursuant to 15 U.S.C. § 1117(c)(1) for non-willful trademark infringement of one mark (i.e., the Trademark Act’s statutory damages provision for use of “counterfeit” marks).  Without much discussion, the Court stated that “[b]ecause Stephens demonstrates a basis for its requested monetary relief, the fourth Eitel factor favors Stephens.”   [Comment:  counterfeit use, really?  And even so, court has discretion to award statutory damages ranging  from $1000 to $200,000—did the circumstances really merit the “maximum”?]

The Court found that the sufficiency of the Complaint was such that no genuine dispute of material facts would prejudice granting the motion.  The Court also found that CitiHealth had sufficient notice of the complaint and therefore it is unlikely that CitiHealth's failure to respond and subsequent default resulted from excusable neglect.  Finally, the Court, while recognizing the preference to have cases decided on the merits, found that CitiHealth's failure to answer Stephens Media's Complaint makes a decision on the merits impractical, if not impossible.

In the end, the Court entered a default judgment  awarding $200,000 against CitiHealth as well as a permanent injunction against CitiHealth and its officers against any further use of the “Best of Las Vegas” mark.  The Court also gave Stephens Media 30 days to file a motion for attorneys fees.

While its highly unlikely that Stephens Media will be able to collect on its $200,000 default judgment, one wonders if Stephens Media, should it be able to collect such funds, would be willing to pump that money into back into Righthaven LLC so that Righthaven can pay the money that it owes to its creditors (including multiple defendants that the Nevada District Court found were wrongly sued by Righthaven for copyright infringement).   That’s probably even more highly unlikely.