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Look out John Q. Corporation. You may not be as entitled to your name as you may have thought. The Italian airline Alitalia S.p.A. just came to terms with this sobering thought after disgruntled passenger William Porta co-opted its name for his “www.alitaliasucks.com” Web site. Porta got angry after a trek last fall to India. Somewhere along the way, the airline lost his luggage, which contained formal black-tie attire for a friend’s wedding. He was forced to buy new duds in India. When Porta got no satisfaction after taking his case to the airline, he took it to the Web. The site chronicles his luggage-losing experience and his struggles with Alitalia. It also gives visitors the chance to complain. The carrier sued him for using its name on this site, claiming that online users could be misdirected while looking for the true Alitalia site. The airline claimed trademark infringement and violation of the anti-cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act. But it dropped the suit this February after the judge handling the matter demanded that the company explain its rationale for bringing action. According to Paul Levy of Washington, D.C.-based Public Citizen, it is not unheard of for a company to sue an individual for using its name. “This isn’t the only one that’s been brought,” he says of the Alitalia case, “but hopefully this [case] will send a message.” In fact, according to The National Law Journal, since the law was passed in 1999, more than 700 cybersquatting lawsuits have been filed in federal court. Levy, who represented Porta in this case (the New York firm Emery Cuti Brinckerhoff & Abady joined the effort later), says that Bally Total Fitness lost a similar case when a customer set up a disparaging Web site using its company name. Levy says the anti-cybersquatting laws were not intended to prevent this form of criticism; in fact, they anticipate and expressly allow for it. The intent of the laws, he adds, is to restrict the hijacking of domain names for profit — where someone, for instance, buys a corporation’s domain name and then tries to sell it back to them for a fee. The registration of a name that is easily confused with that of a trademarked company, where, for instance, only a typographical error could misguide a Web crawler — is also prohibited. Alitalia’s law firm in this matter, New York’s Biedermann, Hoenig, Massamillo & Ruff, did not return calls for comment. Despite the fact that no ruling was actually made in the Alitalia case, Porta has something of a victory because his site is still up and running. Levy also thinks this affair will give companies mulling such suits pause: “These plaintiffs think, ‘we’ll hire a fancy firm and bludgeon people out of free speech rights.’ “ If they do, they’ll be butting heads with the likes of Public Citizen, who’ve tasted victory. So if the next Yahoo search on your company uncovers a derogatory site name or two, it may be best to look the other way. “My client,” says Levy, “got more publicity from being sued than by just putting up that site.”

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