People love to complain, especially online. There are plenty of places to share feelings about that awful restaurant food, dirty hotel bed sheets, or maybe that lost luggage and lousy airline service. Meet Canadian Professor Jeremy Cooperstock, the owner and manager of Untied.com. No, that’s not a typo. Untied.com is a website where unhappy employees and customers of United Airlines can post their complaints against the airline. United Airlines has sued Cooperstock in two Canadian courts for this website but not for the reasons one might think. United’s problems with the website are: 1) the trademarked United logo is on the website; 2) the website looks eerily familiar to United’s own website which United claims causes confusion for those who are looking for the real United.com to file a complaint; and 3) private information is on the website.
Complaining online might be cathartic, but doing so can have its share of legal consequences for hosters and posters alike. First, beware of intellectual property laws. Many countries have some kind of intellectual property protection. Some of these countries have “fair use” or “fair dealing” laws which are exceptions to those protections. Many of these exceptions are for things like parody, critiques, or satires. Before posting trademarked or copyrighted material, ensuring that the website or post falls under one of the exceptions is critical to avoiding an infringement claim.
In addition, owners and posters alike need to be familiar with privacy laws. Disregarding laws such as HIPAA in the United States by, say, posting confidential medical information about a patient who is extremely aggravating (even when omitting the name of the patient) can cause a lot of problems for everyone, including employers depending on the circumstances.
Finally, while not a claim in the United case but still relevant to this discussion, hosters and posters need to be careful that complaints are either factual or opinions. The food can be bad and the service terrible. But claiming that the restaurant is full of cockroaches when there are none just because the meal was bad is perhaps a step too far and could subject the hoster/poster to various defamation claims, especially if the restaurant suffers economic and/or reputational harm as a result.
The First Amendment allows complaining, even online. But familiarity with and following these laws is a good idea, especially if the hoster and poster are not keen on being the subject of another type of complaint.
This posting has been prepared for general information and is not intended to be relied upon as legal advice. Please consult an attorney about specific questions.
John J. Jablonski is a partner and co-chair of Goldberg Segalla LLP’s Cyber Risk and Social Media practice group.
Aaron J. Aisen is an associate with Goldberg Segalla LLP’s Cyber Risk and Social Media practice group.