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Google on Tuesday was sued in a Wisconsin court for allegedly violating the privacy rights of Beverly Stayart, an animal rights activist and the CFO and director of business development at Stayart Law Offices, the firm filing the complaint.
The lawsuit claims that Google is responsible for suggesting the search term "bev stayart levitra" as a user types "bev stayart" and is profiting from this association through the sale of ads on search results pages triggered by those keywords.
Levitra is a sexual dysfunction drug, and thus a term to which some might wish to avoid being linked.
"Google is misleading consumers, in Wisconsin and throughout the world, by selling the keyword phrase 'bev stayart levitra' and placing 'sponsored links' advertisements for Levitra, other male sexual dysfunction drugs, and other medicines and products on the page 'bev stayart levitra' on Google's Web site," the complaint states.
Filing a lawsuit, and the publicity that follows through articles like this one, will unfortunately only strengthen the association of the terms.
Google didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Eric Goldman, associate professor of Law at Santa Clara University School of Law, doesn't think the complaint has much merit, noting that the plaintiff lost a similar "mockable" claim against Yahoo last year.
In a blog post, he says that the claim fails to grasp that a search for the term "bev stayart levitra" may return ads based on "levitra," regardless of the presence of the the plaintiff's name or other keywords.
That's aside from the fact that Google is only indexing Web pages created by others. By virtue of her visibility online, Stayart's name appears to have been co-opted by "sploggers" (those who create spam Web pages) to drive traffic to their pharmaceutical sites.
Nonetheless, Goldman acknowledges that the lawsuit points to an issue that could become problematic for Google in the future: publicity rights in the context of domain names.
Google has a policy for dealing with the sale of keywords that are trademarked, but publicity rights are governed by a different set of rules.
Whereas trademark claims have to establish that another party's use of the trademark confuses consumers, there's no such requirement to assert a publicity rights claim. Thus a domain name, or keyword search term, that's also a famous person's name, could have legal protection not available to mere trademarks.
"Publicity rights are very powerful because they don't require consumer confusion," he said in a phone interview. "I don't think we've seen the last of this."