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No one can deny that America Online is the cheapest slut on the Internet. The company hands out start-up CDs faster than a hooker spreads the clap (so far, it's managed to infect 14 million subscribers with its unique brand of easy Net access). But as Denver Web developer Kenton Kuhn has discovered, AOL considers herself a lady: Screw with her good name and she'll scratch your eyes out. Kuhn has the scars--and legal bills--to prove it.
Kuhn is a small-time Web entrepreneur whose company, Intellinet, specializes in online databases. A civic-minded guy, he and his company created the Denver Summit of the Eight Web page as well as an online database of Colorado statutes. But in the course of his work, Kuhn noticed that people he did business with changed their e-mail addresses about as frequently as they changed their underwear--and keeping up with the changes was next to impossible. Wouldn't it be great if there was a free service to register a forwarding e-mail address?
Using some online database software he developed, Kuhn launched a free e-mail finder service in early November called AdiosAOL.com. When people changed their e-mail addresses, they could log on to AdiosAOL.com and type in the old address and the corresponding new address. That way, when someone sent a message to an old address and received a notice that it no longer existed, the sender could go to AdiosAOL.com to find the new address.
Though the service worked for any e-mail address, no matter who was providing the service--America Online, Compuserve, a local Internet service provider or an employer--Kuhn chose the name AdiosAOL because of America Online's large volume of users and the corresponding high number of people who leave the service every month.
"The name wasn't meant to be derogatory," says Kuhn. "We were just trying to be cute...to be alliterative."
Some joke. In record time--just over two weeks, in fact--the digital behemoth found out about Kuhn's little service and sent him a message. AOL didn't take any chances with e-mail. Instead, the company had its attorneys send Kuhn a cease-and-desist letter via Federal Express.
AOL claimed that the name AdiosAOL would lead consumers into "falsely believing" that Kuhn's service was actually part of America Online. The company demanded that Kuhn stop using AdiosAOL--and that he fork over the name.
To Kuhn, that seemed excessive. "No one with half a brain is going to think this service is owned and operated by America Online," he says.
At first he tried to appease AOL by adding to his site a disclaimer stating that AdiosAOL had no affiliation with America Online. That wasn't good enough, and the company responded with additional legal threats. Faced with the prospect of an expensive legal battle with a major corporation, Kuhn capitulated. On Monday he yanked AdiosAOL offline. Though he maintains he was within his rights to use AOL in the name, he couldn't afford to prove it in court.
Kuhn's attorney, Thomas Birney, claims that AdiosAOL fell under the category of "fair use." That's because its nonprofit nature and the fact that the site included areas where visitors could discuss experiences with various Internet service providers made it an educational site.
Those distinctions were lost on America Online, which has been aggressive when it comes to protecting its brand. "Given that it's a free service and it's going to offer service [to all Internet service providers], there's no reason why this company should be called AdiosAOL," says America Online spokeswoman Tricia Primrose. "We've been spending a lot of money building our brand for the last ten years. It's incumbent upon us that if someone is infringing on the AOL name that we take action."
And the company means business. Recently it sent the owner of the domain name Adultamericanonline.com a letter similar to the one it sent to Kuhn. AOL attorneys decided that the name was close enough to make its subscribers think America Online had moved into the porno biz (though a visit to AOL's adult-themed chat rooms will make them think it already has). Adultamericanonline.com bowed under the pressure; it stopped using the name and handed it over to AOL.
"We were well within our rights," Primrose says of AOL's action against Adultamericanonline.com.
"The way the letter was worded made it sound like it wanted rights to the letters A, O and L," Kuhn complains.
AOL says that's silly but makes it clear that it will zap anyone who dares use the letters in a combination that even vaguely refers to its online service.
The company has backed away from some ugly fights, however. For instance, it decided not to pursue aolsucks.com, a site critical of America Online's service. In 1995, AOL's Webmaster notified the company hosting the site (but not the site's author) that he was alerting AOL's attorneys of the site's existence and would recommend that they take legal action against its host.
Within days, an online backlash ensued. Outraged AOL subscribers complained that the company was trying to silence its critics. AOL vice president Lyn Chitow soon posted a message to an online newsgroup that seemed to cave in to the pressure: "We are not in the business of censorship and believe strongly in individual freedom of speech," she wrote.