Jews for Jesus v. Google and Brodsky – update and analysis
I was on a panel called “Trademark Rights vs. Free Speech” at the Fall 2000 INTA Trademarks in Cyberspace Conference with Marty Schwimmer and David Bernstein. (Five years later I’m still glowing from the reflected brilliance!) The moderator was IP superstar Brendan O’Rourke, who cruelly, on-the-record, and correctly reminded me, “Ron, you lost the Jews for Jesus case, okay? Okay?” Yeah, well, okay. But that doesn’t mean the next guy–in this case, Google–has to! The “Jews for Jesus Whistle Blower” writes, at his Jews for Jesus blog:
Google has a few more days to respond to Jews for Jesus’ lawsuit over the rights to a blog. I bet Jews for Jesus is praying ferverently (and keeping their collective fingers crossed) that Google will give in. What is the likelihood that Google will set a precedent that all anyone has to do is sue Google and they’ll give in? Seems to me that Google is principled. And if they are willing to defend themselves against the government, there’s a good chance they’ll defend themselves against Jews for Jesus.
If Google doesn’t give in, will Jews for Jesus wilt? How much money do they have to pursue the control of a simple blog?
WB, they have plenty of money, and, as you cannily point out, they’re using this litigation to raise more. Jews for Jesus claimed (off the record) during the Brodsky litigation to have raised more in sympathetic donations than they spent on Thelen Reid’s legal fees. We’ll never know if that was true, but it’s food for thought.
As far as the “other side” went, although Steve Brodsky was the sole defendant and there was nothing but the most casual (well, and virtual) link between him and Rabbi Toviah Singer, certainly the two were aligned sympathetically. Rabbi Singer later told me that as a result of the controversy and the traffic that was generated as a result of the publicity for his website, a number of Messianic Jews (i.e., Christians with gefilte fish) returned to the Jewish fold. Maybe he was able to raise a dollar or too himself.
It is fair enough to say that the litigation was more helpful for J4J than it was for either Steve Brodsky, Rabbi singer or anti-J4J missionaries. The real loser, of course, was the law of trademark infringement, which still has not fully recovered. The most egregious aspect of J4J’s arguments on this point (as opposed to the even worse arguments–such as the cooked up “commercial use”–in the opinion) is the very premise that there is, with respect to these website cases, anything even approximating LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION.
As we put it in the Third Circuit brief which, among others, future Supreme Court justice Samuel Alito by all indications did not read (although he was on the panel that rubber-stamped the District Court decision with one sentence of affirmation):
Liability under the Lanham Act requires a showing, inter alia, of likelihood of confusion as to source. Scott Paper Co. v. Scott’s Liquid Gold, Inc., 589 F.2d 1225, 1228 (3d Cir. 1978). But, appellee has submitted no admissible proof to support a finding that confusion is likely.
. . .
[I]t takes virtually no time for even self-described “unsophisticated” users to quickly realize they are at Mr. Brodsky’s site, not that of appellee. The honesty of the non-confusing message on Mr. Brodsky’s website is in stark contrast to the defendant’s website in Planned Parenthood:
Because the words on the top of the page load first, the user is first greeted solely with the “Welcome to the Planned Parenthood Page!” It is highly likely that an Internet user will still believe that she has found plaintiff’s web site at that point.
42 U.S.P.Q.2d at 1438. That kind of confusion is simply impossible in the case of Mr. Brodsky’s website . . . In response to this argument, the District Court found that an individual may be a sophisticated consumer of the Internet but may be an unsophisticated consumer of information about religious organizations. Such a user may find his or her way to the Defendant Internet site and then be confused; the Defendant Internet site advocates views antithetical to those of the Plaintiff Organization.
The last two clauses in the excerpt above constitute a non-sequitur. They also make no sense in the context of the actual website at issue, which explicitly states its opposition to “the Jews for Jesus cult” and disclaims any affiliation with appellee. Concluding that Mr. Brodsky is not part of a Jews for Jesus organization does not require any particular “sophistication.” It only requires the ability to read.
In fact, the courts routinely define “sophistication” in much less “sophisticated” terms than did the court below, where a simple grasp of the obvious is all that is required to negate confusion. Thus, in Girls Scouts v. Personality Posters Mfg. Co., 304 F. Supp. 1228, 1231 (S.D.N.Y. 1969), the court ruled that “rational analysis” precluded confusion about whether the Girl Scouts were the source of a poster depicting a pregnant girl in the well-known uniform of the Girl Scouts appearing with the caveat “BE PREPARED.” Similarly, in Stop the Olympic Prison v. United States Olympic Committee, supra, 489 F. Supp. at 1123, a poster reading “Stop the Olympic Prison” was held not to violate the trademark of the United States Olympic Committee. The court reasoned as follows:
On the basis of its own examination of the poster, the Court finds it extremely unlikely that anyone would presume it to have been produced, sponsored or in any way authorized by the U.S.O.C. While at a fleeting glance, someone might conceivably mistake it for a poster advertising the Olympics, nobody could conceivably retain such a misconception long enough to do any harm: for example, there is no danger that anyone would purchase or display it as such.
Id. . . . As in Girl Scouts and Olympic Prison, no rational person could believe that Mr. Brodsky’s message was in any way affiliated with appellee. The District Court nonetheless held that confusion is likely because Mr. Brodsky’s site is “related” to that of appellee [and that the use of the trademark was in fact more, not less, protected for this reason, on fair use grounds!– RDC]. The court below inexplicably rejected the inescapable conclusion that consumers can dispel any confusion if they merely trouble to read Mr. Brodsky’s message, the way Chellathurai, Kalstein and Sanchez did.
If you’re still with me, here’s a last nail from the Third Circuit reply brief:
In defending the District Court’s likelihood of confusion analysis, appellee comes again to its prized exhibits: the three “confusion affidavits” of Chellathurai, Kalstein and Sanchez. There is little left to debate regarding whether these affidavits demonstrate confusion, or, more likely, the absence of confusion. This Court will simply have to read them. A076, A080, A257. Appellee suggests that the District Court found “initial interest confusion” here. Opp. Brief. at 37. But this doctrine is mentioned nowhere in the opinion below. Developed in a sales context, it has been applied only where “a potential purchaser is initially confused [such that] the [senior seller] may be precluded from further consideration.”
Weiss Assoc., Inc. v. HRL Assoc., Inc., 902 F.2d 1546 (Fed. Cir. 1990) (emphasis added). Thus it does not apply here. In fact, in Girl Scouts the Southern District of New York rejected transient confusion as proof of trademark harm in a social-commentary context:
Even if we hypothesize that some viewers might at first believe that the subject of the poster is actually a pregnant Girl Scout, it is highly doubtful that any such impression would be more than momentary or that any viewer would conclude that the Girl Scouts had printed or distributed the poster.
304 F. Supp. at 1231. As the Girl Scouts court recognized, ephemeral moments of confusion that do not threaten to divert sales are not evidence of actionable harm under the Lanham Act. Real harm must be shown to overcome the constitutional protection of free speech:
No evidence is found anywhere in the record before the court that the poster has to date damaged the plaintiff in any way. No facts are presented to show that contributions to the organization have fallen off, that members have resigned, that recruits have failed to join, that sales . . . have decreased, or that voluntary workers have dissociated themselves or declined to support the honorable work of the organization.
Id. at 1235. Similarly, there is no evidence in this case of any actionable or even discernible harm that appellee has suffered as a result of Mr. Brodsky’s website. Even the court below admitted that the publicity surrounding this dispute was, far from harmful, undoubtedly a boon for appellee. A436-37. And all three supposedly confused affiants found their way to appellee’s website, undeterred by Steven Brodsky and more zealous than ever in their devotion to appellee. In fact, their reports to appellee negate the suggestion of confusion; again from Girl Scouts:
[I]ndignation is not confusion. To the contrary, the indignation of those who [reported the offending use] would appear to make it clear that they feel that the Girl Scouts are being unfairly put upon, not that the Girl Scouts are the manufacturers or distributors of the object of indignation.
Id. at 1231. This passage perfectly describes the three “confusion” affidavits here: indignant, yes, but certain that appellee was not the source of Mr. Brodsky’s website. They were not confused.
They were not confused. Unfortunately, a lot of people were, and are–about what the Lanham Act is, and is not, meant to protect, and don’t get this key point: Indignation is not confusion. We can survive that, as long as too many of them aren’t judges.
It’s a good bet, as Whistle Blower suggests, that Google will get a better hearing than lone idealist Steve Brodsky did in his case, and not just because it is better heeled. (My old firm, Pitney Hardin, handled the Brodsky litigation pro bono.) And the issues are somewhat different.
Still, Whistle Blower says that the Reverend David Brickner, the pleasant, non-Jewish head of Jews for Jesus, thinks this is the second coming of the Brodsky case. Jews for Jesus attorneys Thelen Reid probably hope so (though perhaps not every Thelen Ried partner is singing from the same sheet of music on the topic of God and intellectual property). WB beleives that from a legal point of view this seems like somewhat wishful thinking. (Not to mention the fact that this case was filed in the federal court in New York, not New Jersey, and that Judge Lechner of the former court has retired and moved onto bigger and better things.)
Then again, the Rev. Brickner’s statement is hardly the first instance of wishful confusion to eminate from the the precincts of Jews for Jesus–not hardly.