Bradner's column: No associating permitted?

If you own a Web search engine and associate Playboy with sex, it could get you sued.

Playboy Enterprises just sued Internet search engine companies Excite and Netscape for telling their users about non-Playboy sites offering adult content when a user asks the search engine to search for 'playboy' or 'playmate'. The inference that can be drawn from this action seems to be that either Playboy does not think that its readers are interested in sex or that the company thinks it offers its readers all the sex they could possibly want.

The practice behind the suit involves operators of Internet search engines selling words -- something they've done for quite a while. Sort of like Vanna White selling letters. You can display a banner ad for a user who has searched for a particular word, such as 'auto'. Excite displays banner ads for autobytel.com or autoconnect.com if you search for the word 'auto'. Autobytel and autoconnect pay for this feature, and the revenue from this sort of thing can represent a significant part of a search engine's revenue stream.

According to the Playboy suit, it's one thing to sell a service that displays banner ads triggered by generic word searches, but it's another thing altogether to sell such a service based on trademarks. Playboy claims that Web users may get confused and think that Playboy somehow endorses any adult entertainment sites that get advertised when the user searches for the word 'playboy'.

This seems a bit of a stretch given that such juxtapositions are part of everyday life. For instance, Playboy Enterprises cannot force a retailer through a lawsuit to display Playboy magazine away from hard-core pornographic magazines in a rack. It does not seem like Playboy's suit has much of a chance, but it illustrates the growing legal complexities of the Internet.

As an aside, I'm no fan of the type of ads that tend to show up on the Web anyway. Not because of the content or because they may be for a company other than the one I searched for, but because most of the ads tend to be too damn active. I find the blinking, jumping, spinning, scrolling, exploding and otherwise eye-catching ads very distracting and tend to switch to a static Web page as soon as I can.

I even print out copies of many Web pages with these intrusive in-your-face ads just so I do not have to have the things flashing at me from the computer screen when I'm trying to read the text on the same page. I may not be a typical consumer, but this type of ad is counterproductive if a vendor wants to tell me something about a product. I will not stay around long enough to read the advertisement.

Disclaimer: Harvard's home page is nice and static, even when you search for 'playboy'. But the above are my observations.

Scott Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@harvard.edu

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