The following text is copyright 1999 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

No associating permitted?

by Scott Bradner

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 they think they offer their readers all the sex the readers could possibly want.

The practice behind the suit is that the operators of Internet search engines have been selling words for quite a while. Sort of like Vana White selling letters. You can get a banner ad displayed to a user that has asked for a search for a particular word, such as "auto". Excite displays banner ads for or autoconnect 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 the revenue stream from a search engine.

According to the Playboy suit, its one thing to sell the feature of having generic words such as "auto" trigger targeted ads and another thing altogether to sell the same service for trademarks. Playboy claims that the 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, such juxtapositions are part of everyday life. Playboy Enterprises can not sue a retailer to force the retailer to not put Playboy magazine next to hard-core pornographic magazines in a display rack. It does not seem like Playboy has much of a chance but the suit illustrates the growing legal complexities of the 'Net.

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 switch to a static web page as soon as I can. I even tend to print out copies of many web pages with these intrusive in-your-face ads just so I do not have to have the thing 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 I will say that this type of ad is quite counter productive if a vendor wants to tell me something about a product since I'll will not stay around long enough to read the ad.

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