Steve Levy ⬥ 5 December
The owner of long-running United Airlines gripe site Untied.com was hit with a lawsuit this week by the airline itself. Although the site has resolved from the domain name for 15 years, it changed its appearance in April 2012 to appear more similar to United Airlines’ updated site, drawing the lawsuit for violations of intellectual property and worker privacy.
The site’s domain name, a one-letter deviation from the airline’s primary United.com domain name, contains a common typo made by users looking for United Airlines online, and in October it logged nearly 25,000 unique visitors. While Untied.com features a prominent, pop-up disclaimer message for all visitors warning them that it is not the official United Airlines homepage, the airline states in its suit that the redesigned site will cause “consumer confusion.
The website is owned and operated by McGill University professor Jeremy Cooperstock, who compiles complaints from United Airlines passengers and employees. United Airlines explains in its suit that it is not looking to shut down the site or prevent users from airing their gripes. Rather, it wants Cooperstock to change the site so that it doesn’t look so much like the United Airlines website. The airline also explains that it has asked Cooperstock repeatedly to remove trademarked material, but he has not complied.
Cooperstock describes his site as an “obvious parody” and claims that United Airlines is “trying to shut down [his] site instead of dealing with their problems.” He registered the domain name in 1997 after hosting complaint content concerning United Airlines on another site and has owned and operated it ever since. While the airline reports an instance where a customer mistakenly filed a complaint on Untied.com instead of the official airline website, Cooperstock says that the disclaimer is in place specifically to prevent such situations. Of course, it will be for the court to decide if Cooperstock has used more of the United Airlines branding and website design than is necessary to conjure up the company’s image and make a successful parody.
Regardless of the outcome of the court case, media coverage of the suit is generating additional traffic for Untied.com, which will only result in more users seeing the complaints against United Airlines posted there. This is often referred to as the “Streisand Effect,” so named for the famous singer’s ill-fated attempt to stop the use of paparazzi photos of her home, which resulted in their gaining even greater exposure. The airline already experienced one web-based PR disaster because of the widely viewed song and video on YouTube entitled “United Breaks Guitars” in 2009, which some observers actually credit with being responsible for a drop in the company’s stock value.
The entire ordeal could have been prevented if United had taken measures to own the domain name in the first place. Although the Internet did not have the same presence in 1997 when Untied.com was registered as it does today, the need to think ahead is still a relevant lesson to all brand owners with a web presence.