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Outdated Whois Information Might Lead to False Light Tort: Meyerkord v. Zipatoni

Eric Goldman

Meyerkord v. The Zipatoni Co., 2008 WL 5455718 (Mo. App. Ct. Dec. 23, 2008)

It's a late entry, but this opinion may be a dark horse candidate for the most bizarre case of 2008.

Meyerkord was a Zipatoni employee and listed as the registrant on domain names at Zipatoni's Register.com account. Meyerkord left in 2003. In 2006, Zipatoni ran an astroturfing viral campaign for Sony to promote the Play Station Portable at the domain alliwantforxmasisapsp.com. A BusinessWeek story on the campaign and the Urban Dictionary entry.

Unfortunately for Sony — and Meyerkord — the campaign did not go well. Bloggers and others got suspicious of the overly colloquial site, unmasked the astroturfing and decided to "out" the people involved. They pulled up the Whois records, saw the outdated information that Meyerkord was the registrant, and mistakenly assumed he was involved in the campaign.

The case doesn't get into the specific treatment of Meyerkord, but it seems logical to assume that he was subject to a blogger firing squad circa 2006, i.e., shoot first and ask questions later (I'd like to think the blogosphere would be a little more circumspect circa 2009, but maybe not). For example, the Consumerist has its own category tag for alliwantforxmasisapsp, and it awarded Sony the "Lucky Golden Shit" award for best "flog" of 2006. In this post, the Consumerist "outs' Meyerkord and calls him a "douchebag" (which, for reasons my aging brain can't comprehend, has become the modern derogatory term of choice) until they modified the post, striking out his name and recanting "he is an innocent bystander in this sordid affair." Oops...a little late for that, don't you think, Consumerist?

In response to this rough justice from the blogosphere, Meyerkord sued Zipatoni for the privacy tort of false light. The lower court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim. In this ruling, the appellate court reverses the lower court and remands the case to allow Meyerkord to file an amended complaint if he can allege that Zipatoni acted with actual malice.

While I can see why the court was sympathetic to Meyerkord for being falsely associated with an astroturfing campaign, in my opinion, Zipatoni's real negligence was its failure to keep its domain name records updated FOR THREE YEARS! I feel silly mentioning the obvious and well-known practice pointer that you should keep your Whois record up-to-date; and especially remove any former employees from Whois records. Not only does outdated Whois information pose a major security risk, but it could allow former employees to assert ownership over the domain. Now, keeping them on the record may be tortious to the former employee as well. In any case, for having a former employee listed on its domain names for three years, Zipatoni deserves whatever punishment they get.

One more oddity: alliwantforxmasisapsp.com now is a promotional site for Haagen Dazs ice cream. Huh? I presume Haagen Dazs bought the residual traffic from all of the links bashing the domain, but (1) the association between PSP and Haagen Dazs doesn't make any sense, and (2) I would have thought a big brand like Haagen Dazs wouldn't want the implicit taint of benefiting from an astroturfed website.

By Eric Goldman, Professor, Santa Clara University School of Law. More blog posts from Eric Goldman can also be read here.

Related topics: Cybersquatting, Domain Names, Law, Whois

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