- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2004

DALLAS, Ga. - When Alan and Linda Townsend were unhappy with the sprayed-on siding applied to their house, the frustrated couple launched a Web site to complain and to give other unsatisfied customers a forum.

Visitor postings to the Web site said the product, Spray on Siding, cracked, bubbled and buckled. For their efforts, the Townsends got slapped with a lawsuit by the product’s maker.

The federal case may help shape the boundaries of online speech. Companies routinely go after people they feel are maligning them on the Internet. Legal scholars say the Web site’s owners often don’t fight back.

In this dispute, North Carolina-based Alvis Coatings Inc., which supplied the siding product used in the Townsends’ $16,721 project, claims the couple’s Web site infringes on the company’s trademarks, defames its product and intentionally misleads and confuses consumers.

Alvis is seeking more than $75,000 in damages in addition to unspecified punitive damages and attorney fees.

Though neither side was looking for a brawl over speech rights, the lawsuit is headed that way, said Paul Levy, an attorney for Public Citizen, which agreed to help represent the Townsends.

The complaint filed by Alvis says the name of the Townsends’ Web site, spraysiding.com, “is confusingly similar” to the official Alvis site, sprayonsiding.com, as well as its trademark “Spray on Siding.” Mr. Levy argues that the Townsends have the right to use the domain name they purchased.

Alvis’ lawsuit, filed in September in U.S. District Court in Charlotte, N.C., contends the Townsends are responsible for posting the “false, misleading and disparaging” comments on that message board.

Craig Hartman, Alvis’ chief operations manager, said his company sued the Townsends only after months of fruitless dealings with the couple.

“We truly want the people who use our product to be satisfied,” said Mr. Hartman, who said the company made three “formal generous offers” to the Townsends that were rejected.

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