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Should a media giant
be allowed to control use of word "Toronto"?

Note: No Allegations have been proven in Court
NOW Weekly
FEBRUARY 3-9,2000

The two-headed media monster owned by Torstar and Bell, toronto.com, has been trying for months to run little guy Ritchie Sinclair and Toronto2.com out of town. This week, though, the corporate big guys (Torstar is the corporation that owns the Toronto Star, eye Weekly and a string of other papers) were dealt a serious legal setback.

The toronto.com twosome had filed an application in June asking a court to shut down Toronto2.com.

Web confusion

The claim, which also asks for $500,000 in damages, alleges that the site -- which offers free e-mail, forums and info on non-profit community groups -- is passing off its Web wares and services "in such a way as to cause confusion" in the public's mind.

On Monday, however, a federal- court judge took a huge bite out of toronto.com's claim when it said no to its request to temporarily shut down Toronto2.com. The judge's formal reasons are expected later this week. The damages part of the suit is still to be argued.

Zak Muscovitch, the lawyer who took up Toronto2.com's fight after reading about it in NOW, says Monday's decision renders the damages part of toronto.com's suit all but moot.

"I don't know what their motives were in the first place, but there's very little law to back up their position, and that's being charitable," Muscovitch says. "There was never any real threat from Ritchie. It's an elephant-and-flea situation. So why they were doing it is beyond me. I don't think they expected Ritchie to defend this."

Merely by threatening lawsuits, toronto.com has been able to send other local Web masters whose site domain names happen to include the word "toronto" into Internet oblivion.

Take Robin Betel of Tordine.com.

Betel formed a ring of Toronto-area Web sites at ilovetoronto.com. The problem arose when she decided to dub the ring Toronto WebStars.

She was soon on the receiving end of a letter threatening legal action from Torstar's lawyers. Apparently, they had a problem with the use of the words "Toronto" and "Stars."

So persnickety were they that they even demanded Betel remove the blue background from her Web creation.

Betel at one point considered joining Sinclair in his fight, but the threat was enough to bludgeon her into submission.

The two parties have since come to an agreement whose terms Betel may not discuss, because she'd be sued.

"What needed to be done is done," she says.

TorInfo.com and ctoronto.com are other sites targeted by Torstar's lawyers. They, too, have reached agreements they can't talk about.

Sinclair says he doesn't subscribe to conspiracy theories, but he's been tracking a lot of bizarre traffic on his Toronto2.com site ever since he decided to take on Torstar and Bell.

A large forensic auditing outfit seems to be particularly interested in his site.

Monkey business

Sinclair says it was "scouring and scavenging," taking pages, supposedly gathering evidence to help toronto.com's claim against him, hitting the site a total of 173 times over two days.

All this monkey business surrounding the suit has Sinclair feeling a little dismayed. "These past nine or 10 months I've seen some stuff, boy. I never know what to expect."

The Torstar- and Bell-led conglomerate has also registered the domain names mississauga.com and yorkregion.com, as well as aboutto.com. Domain names are registered with Network Solutions Inc., an organization that allocates electronic addresses on the Web.

But toronto.com has sought to take its commercial interests a step further by trying to trademark "toronto.com"

The Canadian Intellectual Properties Office, however, has twice denied the request, citing a section of the Trademarks Act that prohibits the registering of geographical locations.

There are hundreds of businesses in the city who pay to advertise on toronto.com.

While it is not the city's official Web site, it may appear to be to the casual observer.

It posts an Internet city guide and directory.

Besides sharing links on each other's sites, the toronto.com logo also appears, along with the city of Toronto's official logo, on materials one might think should be reserved for official city services.

These materials include TTC route maps, station maps, system guides and even bus-stop poles.

The Torstar/Bell site also far outdistances activity on the city's official Web site (www.city.toronto.on.ca), averaging 96,000 hits a day compared to the city's 6,000.

The city's legal department, which can take action against an organization that falsely represents itself as being officially affiliated with the city, apparently hasn't given the Internet enough thought to draft a policy.

"We're trying to assess what our view is of the whole thing," says city lawyer Karl Druckman. "I'm not sure the city would take a position that any use of the identifier 'Toronto' is invalid. You have to consider the use of the name and what effect it has."

On this count, Druckman adds, "If someone were to use the word 'Toronto' to provide a type of service similar to what the city does (on its Web site) and is attempting to capitalize on the name of the city or the image, that would raise very different considerations."

Romance row

Isn't that what toronto.com is doing? "I'm not prepared to comment on it," Druckman says.

Neither, it appears, are Torstar's lawyers. Douglas Deeth and Diane Lacalamita both declined to return phone calls.

Out in Winnipeg, meanwhile, Ponder Romance Publishing, a small company that publishes romance novels, is facing a trademark dispute of its own with Torstar-owned Harlequin Enterprises.

Harlequin is claiming that Ponder Romance is not distinctive enough and may be confused with some 14 trademarks registered by Harlequin with the word "romance" in them.

Says Ponder co-owner Pamela Walford, "We don't think this is about the word 'romance.' It's about competition being a threat, and eliminating competition while it's affordable."

FEBRUARY 3-9, 2000


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