United Continental Holdings has sued a Canadian professor who maintains the 15-year-old complaint website Untied.com, which airs complaints from disgruntled United Airlines passengers and employees.
Two suits filed in Canadian courts allege the complaint site violates the airline's copyright and trademarks. It also alleges the site violates the privacy of senior airline employees by posting contact information for those employees.
United said it is not trying to prevent the site's owner, Jeremy Cooperstock, from operating a website where people can express their views about United, but instead is trying to protect its intellectual property, such as its logo, and trying to alleviate confusion by United customers who might think they are filing a complaint with the airline on Untied.com.
"We are not requesting the website be shut down," said United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy.
It was only after an April redesign of Cooperstock's site, which made it look more like the new United.com, that the airline asked him to modify his site so customers would not be confused, she said, adding that the move was to protect customers and that the airline tried to resolve the matter without going to court.
Cooperstock, an engineering professor at McGill University in Montreal, claims the airline is trying to bully and intimidate him, and he vowed to fight the suits, which he calls SLAPP suits, standing for strategic lawsuit against public participation.
He claims the effectiveness of his site is the reason for the lawsuits.
"They are trying to shut down my site instead of dealing with their problems," Cooperstock said. "If they had put as much effort into improving their service as into these SLAPP suits, there'd be no reason for the website."
The site claims to have "collected more than 25,000 passenger complaints against United, along with hundreds of postings from mistreated employees."
In the suits, United said Cooperstock redesigned his website earlier this year to look much like United.com. The color scheme, font, website layout, logo and globe design are "confusingly similar" to United's and difficult to distinguish from the airline site.
United cites an instance where an unhappy passenger filed a complaint with Untied.com, thinking it had filed it with the airline's United.com.
However, Cooperstock said his site looks somewhat similar because it is a parody and that nobody would think it's the real United Airlines site -- especially after he recently included a pop-up window that asks visitors to acknowledge that they understand it's not the real airline site.
"No reasonable person would possibly confuse my page with United's own page," he said.
United also wants Cooperstock to remove workplace contact information for senior United employees, who are not customer-service employees but have been harassed at work. Cooperstock said that contact information is readily available via Internet search engines or in publicly available documents, and therefore is not private.
United also notes that Cooperstock offered to work for United as a paid consultant advising the airline on how to improve customer service. United declined.
"United does not want to create any appearance or suggestion that it has made payments to stifle the criticisms offered at untied.com, which is simply not United Airlines' practice," says a Sept. 10 letter from a United attorney to Cooperstock.
Cooperstock said he would give the airline a small amount of time for free, but it would be unreasonable to do so for an extensive period of time without being paid.
United said it approached Cooperstock "on multiple occasions" to ask that he modify his website so it is not "confusingly similar" to the United Airlines website. Cooperstock refused, which left United "no reasonable option" except to sue, the airline said. Cooperstock said he was under the impression the next step was an in-person meeting that the two sides were attempting to arrange.
The lawsuits, filed by United and Continental airlines, was filed Nov. 19, in both the Federal Court of Canada and Superior Court of Quebec.
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