Seventh Circuit: Plaintiff Unhappy With Search Results Can’t Sue Yahoo!

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"Like many," this opinion begins, "Beverly Stayart was curious about what she would find when she put her name into a search engine." And like many, Beverly Stayart was not happy with what she found. Unlike anybody else, however, Beverly Stayart sued the search-engine company, claiming that the results it associated with her name falsely gave the impression she personally endorsed the products and services listed, including various pharmaceuticals and what the Seventh Circuit called "websites promoting sexual escapades." On September 30, the court affirmed the dismissal of Stayart's claim.

Stayart sued under Section 43(a) of the federal Lanham Act, which prohibits false advertising, false claims of endorsement, and so on. Her problem was that a Lanham Act claim requires a showing that the plaintiff has a "commercial interest" to protect, and Stayart did not have a commercial interest in her own name.

Stayart argued that she had indeed developed a commercial interest in her name by virtue of her extensive "Internet presence," specifically her "humanitarian efforts on behalf of baby seals, wolves, and wild horses; what she describes as 'scholarly posts' on a website; two poems that appear on a Danish website; and genealogy research." But while these activities might have been "passionate and well-intentioned," the court said, they were not "commercial." (Her argument also would have given pretty much anybody the ability to use the Lanham Act, unless it is more difficult than I think it is to get one of your poems on a Danish website.)

She also argued that other non-profit organizations had been held to have a commercial interest for purposes of the Act, but that was under a different section that requires the plaintiff to have a "registered mark." Since Beverly had apparently not trademarked her name (although her attorney did claim at oral argument that she was the only "Beverly Stayart" in the country), that didn't work, either.

In April, Stayart sued Google on essentially the same grounds, and sooner or later, will get essentially the same result.