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Case Study: Free Speech vs. 'cyberpiracy'

Vorys law firm sues creator of parody Web sites Friday, August 11, 2000
Robert Ruth and Kate Schott Dispatch Staff Reporters

Columbus' largest law firm is prepared to battle a Denver businessman over its address on the Internet instead of settling up for $120.

Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease filed a suit this week in U.S. District Court against Brian Wick, president of American Distribution Systems.

Joseph R. Dreitler, an attorney with the law firm, accuses Wick and his company of cyberpiracy, trademark infringement and unfair competition.

On Feb. 28, Wick registered www.voryssaterseymourpease.com with Register.com, an organization that certifies Internet domain names, according to the lawsuit.

"The problem with (settling) is that it would encourage others to engage in cyberpiracy,'' Dreitler said yesterday.

But Wick said he believes that corporate America is taking away the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens. "This is serious business here,'' he said in a phone interview from Denver last night. " The power of free speech is everything.''

Wick said he is practicing his First Amendment rights in creating parody Web sites that use the domain names of law firms that haven't been registered. He has registered about 100 names of law firms across the country, he said.

The suit asks U.S. District Court Judge James L. Graham to order Wick to withdraw the domain name, to prohibit him from selling the name and to award the law firm legal expenses and $100,000 in damages. "If they're going to be sticklers . . . it's going to come back at them pretty hard,'' Wick said, who said he'll file for bankruptcy if he is forced to pay the fine. Wick said he already is more than $30,000 in debt because of legal fights over domain names.

Vorys' lawsuit says Wick was found guilty in federal courts this year of illegally registering domain names for two other law firms&8212;Morrison & Foerster of San Francisco and Jones, Day, Reavis & Pogue of Cleveland.

Wick said another major law firm filed a suit last week, but he would not disclose its name.

Wick said he has a right to create the parody Web sites. "A parody is a civil, non-violent alternative to challenging the system,'' Wick said.

Via postal mail and e-mail, Dreitler notified Wick on March 17 that his use of Vorys' name violated federal law, the suit says.

On May 31, Vorys received an e- mail from Ronald Rossi, a Denver lawyer who represented Wick. The communication offered to withdraw the domain name if Vorys paid Wick $120, the cost of the registration. The law firm refused.

Since its founding in 1909, Vorys "has provided legal services under its (trademark),'' the suit says. In June 1985, the firm registered its trademark with the federal government. Wick's unauthorized registration of the domain name will damage Vorys' trademark rights and its reputation, the suit says. "If they're a sophisticated law firm at all, they would have registered their domain name years ago,'' said Rossi, who said he no longer represents Wick because Wick doesn't have the money to pay him.

Dreitler is a trademark attorney for several major companies in central Ohio, including Wendy's International, Stanley Steemer International, Anheuser-Busch, Dell Computer and Schottenstein's. Last week, Graham found a Tallahassee, Fla., man guilty of cyberpiracy for registering a domain name for Stanley Steemer. Dreitler was lead attorney in the case. Last year, Dreitler won a similar ruling in federal court in Columbus against a cyberpirate who registered a domain name for Wendy's.

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