A coastal Maine blogger who criticized the state’s tourism office has been hit with a lawsuit seeking potentially more than $1 million in damages for allegedly making false statements and posting on his website, Maine Web Report, images from proposed tourism advertisements a New York agency prepared for Maine officials.
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The advertising agency is suing Dutson on three counts: copyright infringement, defamation, and trade libel/injurious falsehood. It seeks statutory damages of $150,000 for each of six images it alleges were infringed upon, as well as unspecified punitive damages and legal fees.
This suit has various elements, and it’s hard to say how much of it would go forward in the absence of the (more conventional) copyright claims. This is not purely a trade libel suit based on blog content. But it contains that claim, and as such, it’s a sobering data point. In particular, if these kinds of suits (trade libel over blog content) become a broader trend, that will have serious effects on blogs. After all, a good deal of the blogosphere is dedicated to criticism of some industry or other. There is the classic “I had a bad experience with X airline” post; there are series of posts criticizing a business or industry; and so on.
Trade libel requires (as far as I’m aware, in every jurisdiction – though I’m not an expert) actual falsehood, so that is a potential defense. But even a successful defense can be costly and time-consuming and stressful, and I suspect that few bloggers would want to risk a lawsuit. Thus, the real effect of such lawsuits is the chilling effect — that bloggers will become more hesitant in their criticisms. This may be a good thing in some cases — Heaven knows thablogs often generate more heat than light — but is certainly not an unalloyed good.
In the mean time, let me say that my New York trip has been great. Loved the food. Even the subways smelled nice. Please don’t sue me, Mayor Bloomberg. Or the blog. I was just kidding when I complained about that stale bagel. And I deleted that post, anyway. What post? I didn’t see any post about a stale bagel. Did you, guys? Didn’t think so. Carry on. Nothing to see here.