Wis. court rules in search-engine keyword suit

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — A Milwaukee-area personal injury law firm that paid to use the names of a competing firm in Internet search engines to promote its own link did not violate privacy laws, a Wisconsin appeals court ruled Thursday.

Habush, Habush & Rottier based its 2009 lawsuit against Cannon & Dunphy on a Wisconsin right-to-privacy statute that prohibits the use of any living person's name for advertising purposes without the person's consent.

Cannon acknowledged paying for the keywords of 'Habush Rottier' but denied wrongdoing. A search for the words shows a sponsored link for Cannon & Dunphy attorneys, just above the link for Habush's site.

Cannon & Dunphy argued it didn't violate privacy laws because the rival attorneys' names are not visible in Cannon & Dunphy's sponsored links or its website and it's a different kind of use than that to which the law has historically applied.

The 1st District Court of Appeals agreed in its ruling Thursday.

" ... It is consistent with case law on which the statute is based and on case law interpreting statutory language that is comparable for our purposes," according to the decision. It affirmed a previous Milwaukee County Circuit Court's decision.

The lawsuit was filed in November 2009 in Milwaukee, where Habush is headquartered. Cannon is based in nearby Brookfield.

In a statement, Robert Habush and Dan Rottier said they were disappointed with the decision and expected to request a review by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. A petition for review has to be filed within 30 days of the appeals court decision. A message and email sent to Cannon & Dunphy were not immediately returned Thursday.

Paying a company like Google for keywords is a common business practice. Based on how much a business pays, along with other search criteria, someone who searches for those keywords will see the company's link at the top of the page, labeled as a sponsored link.

Similar lawsuits have been filed over the keyword issue, with some differences. An American Airlines lawsuit targeted not a rival but Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc., and alleged not a privacy violation but that the search giants infringed on its trademarks.

American was upset that Web users who entered search terms such as AAdvantage, the trademarked name of its frequent-flier program, saw results that included links to American's Web site but also to its rivals under sponsored links.

Google compared its policy to magazines that publish a Ford ad on the page opposite a story about Chevrolets. Yahoo said it had confidence in its policies, which allow advertisers to use others' trademarked terms if they do so without creating "a likelihood of consumer confusion."

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit against Google in 2008. American Airlines settled its case with Yahoo in 2009, but the terms were not disclosed.

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