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A property website has settled a lawsuit by agreeing to display the full URL of any hyperlinks that take its users to the website of US law firm Jones Day. It has undertaken not to embed any links to the law firm within words or names on its site.

The case against Chicago-based Blockshopper had worried free speech and digital rights advocacy groups which tried to participate in the trial but were blocked. The Electronic Freedom Foundation called Jones Day's trade mark claims "baseless" and said its demands violated the US constitution's first amendment, which enshrines the right to free speech.

"These routine references to Jones Day are well-established fair uses of a trademark and clearly protected by the First Amendment," it said. It was barred by the Chicago court from filing papers in support of property website Blockshopper.

Blockshopper has now agreed to change the way that it publishes links to Jones Day's website.

BlockShopper.com provides information about property transactions. All information is compiled from public sources and presented in the style of news reports. Each report gives the address of the property, the names of the buyer and seller and states the price paid. Where someone has a publicly-accessible profile at another site, a brief summary is typically included in BlockShopper's report with a link to the profile at the third party site.

One article was headlined "Jones Day attorney spends $463K on Buckingham Pl." It reported that purchaser Dan Malone Jr. is an associate with the firm's Chicago office and summarised his biographical details. It published the photograph that appears on Jones Day's site and his last name acted as a link to that profile. A similar article named another Jones Day associate.

Jones Day claimed that the links amounted to trade mark infringement and dilution, and that the linking of a name direct to one of its pages was a deceptive trade practice.

Digital rights advocates worried that a successful case would cement in law a way for companies to suppress free speech. The EFF, Public Citizen, Public Knowledge and Citizen Media Law Project tried to file a brief to the court supporting Blockshopper, but were denied permission to by the judge.

"[Jones Day] is abusing a trademark to suppress legitimate, non-infringing speech, with potentially significant implications for other online speakers," said that brief. "The Internet offers unprecedented opportunities for speakers and audiences to find each other and exchange valuable information about products, research, viewpoints, and other important topics. That exchange cannot happen if trademark holders can prevent others from using their marks, accurately, in the ordinary course of communication, to refer to the holders themselves. But that is precisely what Jones Day seeks to do here. Its effort must fail."

The court did not get a chance to rule on the case. Blockshopper decided to settle the case. The settlement agreement binds it to avoid using embedded links, which use a word in the text as a live link to more material elsewhere. In this case the link was embedded in the name of the Jones Day employee and the link was to their pages on the Jones Day site.

Instead, Blockshopper is given two options for linking to profiles on Jones Day's site, each of which requires a statement that the individual is employed by the firm and the display of a full URL, such as www.jonesday.com/johndoe.

The case does not set a precedent because it is not the ruling of a court, but it may raise concern amongst digital rights advocates that other firms will try to control links to their pages.

The agreement does, though, recognise the right of Blockshopper to link to pages on Jones Day's website other than its homepage, a process called 'deep linking'.

"Blockshopper is permitted, however, to use Deep Links to any website owned or operated by Jones Day," it said.

See: Settlement agreement (4-page/158KB pdf, hosted by Cleveland.com)

Copyright © 2009, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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