No Charge

Bait and Switch

Sneaky Web tricks get the ax

An "anything goes" mentality characterized the Web during its initial growth spurt, but now that it's an established medium, judges are starting to lay down the law. An April ruling by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals outlawed a kind of trademark infringement made possible by the Web's architecture. It worked like this: When creating a site, a company could put in the names of much bigger competitors but do so in meta-tags, code that is read by search engines but remains invisible to casual viewers. When surfers looked for a big company, search engines would pull up the little company's site, too.

But don't try this at home. The court's ruling bans the use of rivals' trademarks to lure traffic to a site because, according to the court, the practice breeds confusion among consumers. For now, the ruling is binding only in the court's turf--California and eight other western states--but judicial experts say they expect other appellate courts to adopt similar rulings soon.

The warning for Web designers is clear: Revise any meta-tags in use on your site to eliminate fraudulent, confusing misuse of competitors' trademarks.

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This article was originally published in the July 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: No Charge.

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