I love stories of kneejerk (emphasis on the second syllable) lawyers mucking with a company’s image and relationships with their stupid cease-and-desist letters. Here’s a good one.
My sonorously named friend Rikki Tahta, founder of Covestor, invested in a company called Amplicate sent me an email about such a letter. (Disclosure: I invested in the former company, gave advice to the latter, and am a customer of the company I’m about to mention, USAA).
Amplicate gathers mentions about companies and organizes them according to sentiment, creating a “sucks” and “rocks” page for each brand. It has more than 16 million opinions from 5 million people on 100k topics. Now Rikki tells the tale:
Yesterday Amplicate received a bullying email from the corporate legal department of USAA – the insurance and financial services company. In short the letter was packed full of legalese that was incomprehensible but clearly implied that Amplicate were not allowed to publish a web page that said USAA sucked and they would take legal action against if they continued.
The outrageous thing is they are clearly bullying. Amplicate has a First Amendment right to say what it wants, and besides it merely re-posts all the tweets of individuals who also have a right to free speech. Regardless it is outrageous to try and stifle criticism by suggesting legal action particularly when you know its baseless. The guys running Amplicate were concerned they had broken some law, until we told them it was nonsense. But for all I know USAA may have been successful elsewhere.
But the really funny thing is: the USAA corporation is completely missing the point of social media and are trying to shoot themselves in the foot. Like all topics at Amplicate there is a USAA Sucks page and a USAA Rocks page. Most banks have considerable more negative opinions than positive. USAA is actually one of the most popular financial institutions with 93% of people expressing strong opinions being favourable. The average bank hovers around 30-40%. Search for USAA opinions and you’ll find that out pretty quickly.
Under the terms of their legal complaint they wouldn’t want us mentioning USAA at all and we’d have to remove the USAA Rocks page too! Its amazingly crude to expect people should only publish nice things about you, and its ineffective, the positive comments are all the more credible precisely because there is an equal opportunity for negative comment.
Wacky, self-destructive, jerky, eh?
The legal argument USAA’s pit bull puts forward is as hard to understand as its social-media strategy. Their threatening letter says about Amplicate’s pages:
These actions on your part are clearly designed to cause confusion, deception, and mistake. Furthermore, the use of USAA’s name and marks in connection with this website, and deceptive web search tactics, violates USAA’s rights and constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition under the Lanham Act. In addition, your site incorporates USAA’s mark(s), uses the same channel of commerce (the Internet) used by USAA, and describes services identical to those covered by USAA’s mark(s).
So let me get this straight: If I say “USAA” on the internet thingie I’ve violated your trademark and confused all your customer? They then try to order around the startup:
We trust this letter is sufficient to convince you to immediately cease and desist from all use of the USAA name and marks, including within the content of your website, URL strings and extensions, and metatags, metadata, banner ads, texts ads, and links, now and forever hereafter. In addition, you must transfer to USAA any and all domain names you own or control that include USAA, or any other marks of USAA, within the next fifteen (15) days.
So then USAA should come after me because somewhere in the URL above, I say USAA? And here I use the letters USAA a lot. Come and get me. On its site (which I dare to link to), USAA says it “not a publicly traded company, so we don’t answer to stockholders — we answer to our members.” Well, I’m a member so answer me this, USAA: How can you be so foolish? And if you get rid of the legal department that wastes money doing this foolishness, will you lower my rates?
Oh, and by the way, USAA, since I’m talking about you, I remain enraged that you turned down my life insurance because I received a heart condition as a result of being at the World Trade Center on 9/11 — is this how you treat emergency personnel there and soldiers in war? I’d say that sucks.