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Trying to keep a step ahead of the law when it comes to protecting trade names on the Web, San Francisco-based attorneys for a South Carolina company have convinced a federal judge to temporarily stop a company from manipulating search engine results to confuse consumers. In March, U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of the Northern District of California issued a preliminary injunction preventing www.taxes.com owner Steven Kassel from loading his Web site up with 75 references to competitor J.K. Harris & Co. so that when consumers searched “J.K. Harris” what appeared first on the search results was Kassel’s competing site. Judges across the country have enjoined companies doing business on the Web from unfairly using a competitor’s trade name in metatags — key words hidden in the computer code that affect search results. But attorneys for J.K. Harris said Wilken’s decision extends trademark protections in response to new techniques designed to lure consumers away by initially confusing them. “What is so revolutionary about this opinion is it expands the enjoinment of initial-interest-confusion practices on the Internet to other practices such as the excessive use of the person’s trade name,” said William Farmer Jr., a partner with Collette & Erickson who is representing J.K. Harris. In J.K. Harris v. Steven Kassel, 02-0400, J.K. Harris, a South Carolina tax representation and negotiation firm, sued competitor taxes.com for a host of claims including unfair competition and false advertising under federal fair business law, as well as defamation, trade libel and intentional interference with contractual relations. According to the complaint, taxes.com manipulated search engine results by using its competitor’s name repeatedly on the Web site in headlines such as “Complaints about J.K. Harris Pile Up.” J.K. Harris’ attorney describes it as “creating keyword density” and using header tags and underlined tags to manipulate search engines, which often scan a site for content. Taxes.com was also accused of posting libelous statements about its competitor, and Kassel was accused of abusing his authority as an Internet editor to promote his own businesses. Attorneys with Beverly Hills, Calif.’s Ervin, Cohen & Jessup, representing taxes.com, argued that the architecture of the site is not confusing and that referring to a competitor is free speech. Wilken was not persuaded and enjoined taxes.com from using the plaintiff’s trade name more than reasonably necessary to identify the plaintiff. She also enjoined excessive use in headers and as underlined words.

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