St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony Larussa filed in May a lawsuit against Twitter, claiming that the company’s allowance of the username “TonyLaRussa” was a violation of his rights. In particular, LaRussa claimed that the account and its use constituted a violation of his trademark rights, misappropriation of his name and likeness, and an invasion of his privacy. Legal observers opined that these types of claims were an odd fit for the circumstances and, more importantly, a federal law known as the Communications Decency Act contains a provision that shields publishers of user data against liability for such publication. While the law does not protect a party from liability for intellectual property claims, the assertion of trademark claims in LaRussa’s complaint were arguably misplaced.
This week, news of LaRussa’s withdrawal of his lawsuit has been made public. This, before any real activity in the case was undertaken. LaRussa’s camp claims that his objective of having the offending account removed was accomplished and, accordingly, the lawsuit was no longer necessary. Critics say that the lawsuit was never meritorious and was withdrawn before having to spend time and money substantiating the claims.
For observers who have their own online businesses that allow user comments or other content, this lawsuit is a good reminder of a few things. One is that there is, on the books at least, a fairly good set of protections for publishers of user data that may run afoul of the law. As mentioned above, the CDA (Section 230) provides such protection for non-IP claims. For copyright related claims, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act provides its own safe harbor provisions that also employ a “notice and take down” procedure that requires publishers to respond to complaints received from content owners. However, despite these protections, third parties certainly may threaten and even file lawsuits against online publishers of user content.
For publishers of user content, the potential risks are many. The best advice is to foster a community that is unwelcoming of illegal activity of any kind. Beyond this, a site’s terms and conditions should certainly allow for summary termination of accounts for any illicit or even “objectionable” activities, as defined by the site owner. If and when a threat does come, experienced legal counsel should be relied on for determining whether a claim is baseless or solid, and quick actions should be taken, if necessary.