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A federal judge ruled Aug. 22 that a California-based company’s maintenance of a Web site through a host server in New Jersey was not by itself sufficient to subject the company to suit in New Jersey. “It is unreasonable that by utilizing a New Jersey server, defendants should have foreseen being hauled into a New Jersey federal court,” U.S. District Judge Nicholas Politan ruled in Amberson Holdings LLC v. Westside Story Newspaper, C.A. No. 00-1108. “To hold otherwise would open the door to an unlimited scope of personal jurisdiction in the Internet world,” he wrote. At issue in the case was a California-based weekly newspaper’s maintenance of a Web site called “westsidestory.com.” The newspaper was sued for trademark infringement by a pair of affiliated companies that claimed to hold the trademark for “West Side Story.” The newspaper brought a motion to dismiss the complaint for lack of personal jurisdiction, arguing that as a California company it did not have the requisite degree of “minimum contacts” that would subject it to suit in New Jersey. Politan granted the motion, rejecting the plaintiffs’ argument that the defendants’ use of a New Jersey “host server” to operate the Web site established personal jurisdiction. “Access to a Web site reflects nothing more than a telephone call by a district resident to the defendant’s computer servers,” wrote Politan. “This court, therefore, refuses to hold that inter-computer transfers of information, which are analogous to forwarding calls to a desired phone number through a switchboard, should somehow establish sufficient contacts that would subject a defendant to personal jurisdiction.” Rather, noted Politan, a court’s exercise of personal jurisdiction based on a Web site depended on the site’s “degree of interactivity.” Fully interactive Web sites that allowed business to be conducted over the Internet were always an appropriate basis to exercise in personam jurisdiction, according to Politan. “Passive” Web sites, however, which did not allow information to be exchanged, did not establish the degree of “minimum contacts” required for jurisdiction over out-of-state defendants. In ruling that “westsidestory.com” was not interactive enough to establish personal jurisdiction, Politan conducted his own “field” research by browsing the Web site itself. He found that “westsidestory.com” only provided information and the chance to e-mail the company, along with the option to “click through” to the advertisements of outside vendors. The Web site did not sell any products, observed Politan, and was therefore unlike fully interactive Web sites that conduct business over the Web. The site, he said, was essentially nothing more than passive advertisement. The trademark infringement complaint was therefore dismissed by Politan, although the case could be filed again in a California court. In making his ruling, Politan did not address the merits of the trademark infringement claims. The defendants’ attorney, Dennis Blake of Rubenstein, Rudolph, Meyerson & Blake in Oakland, N.J., says Politan’s opinion sets forth some needed guidance in this area of law. “Had there been a case as clear as this one out there, the motion would not have been suspenseful for us,” says Blake. Jeffrey Pollock, a partner at Newark’s Sills Cummis Radin Tischman Epstein & Gross who specializes in complex litigation, agrees that the decision sets clear guidelines but notes that it follows decisions from other circuits. “The opinion is consistent with the line of cases that state that if you do not have sales or some kind of active commercial transaction, then you are not going to be subject to ‘Internet jurisdiction’ simply because you’re present on the Web,” says Pollock. Debra Lightner, who specializes in commercial litigation at Sills Cummis, calls the decision encouraging because it will “help aid in the expansion and development of the Internet.” Limiting the exercise of personal jurisdiction based on Web sites will “make the Internet more accessible” because people will not be as fearful of lawsuits, says Lightner. David Picon of the Newark office of New York’s Proskauer Rose, who represented the plaintiffs, was out of the office Friday and could not be reached for comment.

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