Legal action ahoy! March 17, 2002 10:57 PM   Subscribe

here's an interesting dilemma. the hate site referenced in this thread is being threatened with legal action from a company named the vanguard group.

how do we feel about this?
posted by rebeccablood to MetaFilter-Related at 10:57 PM (22 comments total)

our community has been pretty vocal in the past when corporations have tried to "protect their trademark" at the expense of independent publishers on the Web.

how do we feel about this?

I'm not going to publicize it on my site because I just generally have a policy not to link to websites I find reprehensible. in fact, I had some trouble linking to it here. but I have linked to this kind of thing in the past, and so have others in the personal publishing community.

this kind of action by corporations is reprehensible, too.

so, what should we do? or is corporate abuse only abuse when we approve of the little guy's politics?
posted by rebeccablood at 11:01 PM on March 17, 2002

If you truly believe that free speech is right and just, then you have to support the right to that speech by those whom you find reprehensible and hateful. It's been said before, but bears repeating: the remedy to speech that is damaging or hateful is more free speech, not silencing it. It only forces it underground.
posted by ltracey at 11:41 PM on March 17, 2002

I think if the nazis are using the name to make a profit, then this corporation probably has a legitimate claim.

Will someone far more qualified then I clue me in on all the vagaries of internet copyright law, preferably in 3-5 sentences?
posted by insomnyuk at 11:45 PM on March 17, 2002

VNN doesn't seem willing to do much to help themselves. They have responded to Vanguard's actions only with a press release. If VNN would go through the motions, it likely wouldn't be a problem--I doubt Vanguard has much of a case. If they're going to shoot themselves in the foot, I don't have a lot of sympathy.

As for "what should we do," it's a tough call. You admitted you won't publicize from your site because you find VNN reprehensible. I'm in the same boat. I think if it were a free speech issue, and VNN were doing all they could to fight, then they'd have every right to have the ACLU and other freedom-loving people on their side, despite their politics. That isn't the case here.

posted by frykitty at 11:51 PM on March 17, 2002

Well, initially I was a little excited because I thought I might have been the cause of the lawsuit by posting the link here, but from rebeccablood's link I see that Vanguard's initial letter was on September 4, 2001, so I can't feel even partially responsible.

When it comes to free speech issues, I generally rely on the advice generally attributed to Voltaire: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." In this particular case, the neo-Nazis have a web site with a similar name, but they are not positioning themselves as investment advisors, and the word "vanguard" is ambiguous enough that it is not uniquely identified with the investment company, so I think the little guy's in the clear, even though I vehemently disagree with their views.

On the other hand, I should recuse myself because I have a personal history with the plaintiff's law firm in the case. In college I was a courier in Washington, DC, and I delivered packages for Akin, Gump, et. al. Of course, my main recollection of the relationship is the joy my colleagues and I took in saying, "Oh, my achin' gump."

posted by kirkaracha at 12:19 AM on March 18, 2002

I believe in free speech, but I also believe that you have to fight the right battles too... and if I were a free speech advocate, I would pick another battle. This is the kind of battle that could only harm their cause under the circumstances. I'm not even certain it really is a free speech issue as much as a lameass trademark/brand name issue. Let a judge decide it.

Reminds me of the joke that Bobcat Goldthwait made after Charles Manson caught on fire in prison -

"Hey man... look at that. Charles Manson is on fire."
"Should we do something about it?"
"Uh... got a shovel?!"
posted by insomnia_lj at 12:39 AM on March 18, 2002

Interesting, and timely, post RebeccaBlood. But, one must notice that the last threat/letter given was submitted as of Oct. 2001. 5 months later, the site is still up and running, as is evident. I hate racists. Very much so. Yet, in most of my political discussions(battles) I've often presented people, and the politicians that they supported with the query of "if you're going to take the 'moral high road', then do it where you gain nothing, but for what you believe in none-the-less." It's sticky. I will (obviously) fight for something for years that i believe in, but it's much harder to defend something that you disagree with when you know that, intrinsically, they have all rights to do what they are doing. If the site in question were, then i would fucking hate nike for trying to buy it/ take ownership of it under similar circumstances. So i defend the racist fucking dick assholes' rights to own the site and do with it what they will. Obviously, however, we still have the right to hate them for what they are. So is the essence of MeFi. So is the point of linking and mocking. It's easy, almost a straw-man argument in this day and age, especially on the internet, the free-thinking pinko hippies that we all are. Goooooooooooooo MeFi!!
posted by Ufez Jones at 12:50 AM on March 18, 2002

Do the people at PayPal know that the Nazis accept donations through PayPal? Can this somehow be stopped?

I guess this is the price we pay for more freedom and power, groups like this get the ability to organize and fundraise that much more effectively.
posted by insomnyuk at 12:51 AM on March 18, 2002

I guess this is the price we pay for more freedom and power, groups like this get the ability to organize and fundraise that much more effectively.

As much as i hate the pricks, this is why i love the internet, b/c for every hate group out there raising funds and writing bullshit reviews, there's a group out there that i support for one reason or another that i wouldn't find elsewhere. And for every PayPal link that there is that i hate and resent the fact that someone will charge their credit card to (be it $1 or $10,000), I'm glad the opportunity is there for someone i like. Let the cream rise to the top, and the rest can be reactionist bullshit that noone will care about in six months. No?
posted by Ufez Jones at 12:58 AM on March 18, 2002

And, can PayPal legally discriminate against certain websites, so long as they're not illegal? Where's IPlawyer when you need her?
posted by Ufez Jones at 1:05 AM on March 18, 2002

Any private corporation has the right to discriminate. It's their property, and as long as they are not breaching a contract, they should be fine (except for Federal Regulations and the Civil Rights act, but those shouldn't apply, methinks)
posted by insomnyuk at 1:22 AM on March 18, 2002

However loathsome, the Neo-Nazis are being bullied here in a way that could happen to any of us.
Speech is the spine of any sort of freedom, and this example of Vanguard protecting it's corporate interests breaks down to "We have the dough, lawyers and general clout of social acceptability, so you, smaller group of people, clear off because we say so."
posted by dong_resin at 1:27 AM on March 18, 2002

This site may answer a few questions. They are also starting an archive of cease and desist letters. For those interested in this sort of thing, here is a detailed story of a pro se (up until recently) defendant in a domain name dispute.
posted by anathema at 2:33 AM on March 18, 2002

This is NOT a free speech case; it is simply a trademark dispute. The Vanguard Group is only asking Vanguard News Network to change its name, not take down the site altogether. In fact, they could probably get a compromise settlement that allows them to maintain a temporary website at the current URL that points to whatever they decide to rename themselves.

The lesson here is "when you choose a name, don't use a trademark, and once you DO pick a name, trademark it for yourself."
posted by mischief at 3:50 AM on March 18, 2002

I don't claim to know the law in all her details, but financial news is not Aryan movie reviews, it's not likely that a consumer would mistake one for the other. From anathema's link to Chilling Effects:

Other descriptive marks like "Greyhound" may indicate a generic thing, the breed of dog, or a specific company, Greyhound Bus Lines. To receive protection, the trademark holder must show that an otherwise generic word, Greyhound or Apple, has acquired a secondary meaning in the eyes of the relevant purchasing public.

Considering that there is Vanguard News, Vanguard News, and Vanguard News , I think the financial service people opened a big old can of worms for themselves by including the fact that they don't want to be associated with neo-Nazis in their cease and desist letters: what was just an ordinary trademark and infringement suit becomes a free speech issue.

Popular speech doesn't need protection; the first amendment is in place to keep safe the dissemination of unpopular opinions- crazy ideas like reporting government wrongdoing, abolition, sufferage were part of the foundational ideal of this country. We don't do anything but betray our own Constitution by forcing Nazis to shut up in public- silencing them doesn't make them go away. It just makes us two years old again with our hands over our ears, naively believing that if we can't hear them, they no longer exist.
posted by headspace at 4:33 AM on March 18, 2002

The term "vanguard" has been associated with white supremacists for a long time. The National Alliance first begam publishing National Vanguard Magazine in 1970, and Christian Vanguard has also been around for several decades.

Considering that the Vanguard Group didn't register its mark until 1993 (though it claims to have used it since 1974), I wonder if they would even bother to pursue this all the way to court.

The publicity the case might receive would call more attention to all the neo-nazi Vanguards out there, further damaging the Vanguard Group's mark.
posted by rcade at 6:07 AM on March 18, 2002

There is common law trademark also, denoted by ™. Registration, denoted by the "R" inside of the circle, provides the owner with increased state protection and remedies.
posted by anathema at 6:15 AM on March 18, 2002

This is NOT a free speech case; it is simply a trademark dispute.

Yes, legally it's a copyright issue and not a free speech one, but if it was Vanguard Let's Give Teddy Bears To Orphans Group rather than Hitler's movie reviews, it's far less likely they'd ever have been under fire from The Vanguard Group, Inc.

It's the value judgment being made by a corporation, and the must protect our brand name at all costs argument I don't like.
Sentiments like "The fact that your trademark and domain name are not identical to the 'VANGUARD' trade name and trademark does not insulate you from liability" bother me. Just how much of the word "Vanguard" does The Vanguard Group, Inc. get to own?

Legally I realize all that may not amount to much, but it is what makes me side with the jackboots in this one. I see them as ultimately the lesser evil.
posted by dong_resin at 6:15 AM on March 18, 2002

Sentiments like "The fact that your trademark and domain name are not identical to the 'VANGUARD' trade name and trademark does not insulate you from liability" bother me. Just how much of the word "Vanguard" does The Vanguard Group, Inc. get to own?

It's easy to get a lawyer to write a threatening letter, but harder to win a case.

Remember that the law requires the owner of a trademark to protect it from inappropriate use. If they do not, they may lose the mark. A threatening letter may be all that's necessary in some cases to qualify as protection, especially when the uses of the trademarks don't overlap much. (IANAL but that's how it seems to me.)

As an added PR benefit, no one can now accuse the Vanguard Group of condoning this Web site.
posted by kindall at 7:34 AM on March 18, 2002


Remember that the law requires the owner of a trademark to protect it from inappropriate use. If they do not, they may lose the mark. A threatening letter may be all that's necessary in some cases to qualify as protection, especially when the uses of the trademarks don't overlap much. (IANAL but that's how it seems to me.)

this sounds right to me as well; sending a cease and desist letter, if i'm right, gives them the option of later legal action against the group if they so choose. (maybe it's not necessary, but for some reason i was under the impression that it was.)

i don't hate the neo-nazis; doing so doesn't solve much. i feel badly for them, and i wish we could do more to educate them and others -- not simply tell them X is bad, but show them the errors in logic, the fallacies and the lies -- but it may be that there will always be similar groups in our present as they were in our past. through such education, though, perhaps we could best marginalize the groups.
posted by moz at 9:13 AM on March 18, 2002

rebecca... Good question. I saw the cease and desist order when I visited VNN to read a few reviews. Given its age, and the fact that the site is still up, I expected that Vanguard Group was just attempting a scare tactic, and a sign to others who might actually infringe upon their name that they are willing to defend it (by marking their territory).

Then I saw the post on Blogdex about the removal of the site from their index, and how Cameron was having second thoughts about having removed the site from the blogdex, regardless of how he felt personally about it. The comments included some eloquent words on the subject, including yours.

When reading through the vanguard movie reviews, it struck me that the authors were not unintelligent people. The review On "Fight Club": Militia Subversion Without Racism managed to put aside the subject of race, and draw some interesting conclusions regarding the movie. I was reminded of an interview with George Burdi, who left behind the white nationalist movement, and now plays in a band called Novacosm.

How should we feel about the Vanguard Group trying to claim the Domain Name vanguardnewsnetwork from its present possessors? Probably about the same way as if a business tried to do the same to any of us.

Why should trademark make a difference for a domain name? The dispensation of domain names was originally based upon a first-in-time registration. When people started registering as many as they could with the intent to resell, a fee was imposed to make that practice more difficult. People did continue to register names with no intention of using them. Others registered names to compete with businesses in the same market as theirs. Trademark only really plays a role when cybersquatting and unethical business practices come into the picture. anathema points to a pretty good source of information on the subject at Their FAQ on domain names and trademark should answer a lot of questions that anyone here might have on this subject.

The VNN didn't start the web site up to cybersquat. They aren't competing with the Vanguard Group in offering financial services. There should clearly be no doubt in any consumer's minds that the VNN and the Vanguard group are not related in any way. The word "vanguard" is generic enough that it should be difficult to make the claim that Vanguard Group does, that VNN is infringing on their trademark. The lack of cybersquatting or competition in the same market removes the element of bad faith in VNN's use of the word "vanguard."

I may strongly disagree with the VNN's view towards other human beings, but maybe in their attempts to express themselves, they might think about the world outside of themselves and the barriers of hate that they feel surround them. Having a company like Vanguard Group steal their domain name, or having someone refuse to include them in an index of other websites that value freedom of expression only increases that hatred.
posted by bragadocchio at 4:08 PM on March 18, 2002

Cut and dried, imho; no pressure being brought to bear on Vanguard Airlines, Vanguard Sailboats, Vanguard Financial, the Vanguard conservative organization (no links need, first page of Google)? They are stirring up a free speech case with no legs upon which to stand and pissing everyone off who now feels they have to make 1st amendment noises and seem like they're the nazi's pals.

Self-defeating. Stupid. Wrong. Just like the nazis, only illegal. Another drop in the deep bucket of misguided attempts to regulate morality. What, like they'll go away?
posted by umberto at 5:19 PM on March 18, 2002

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