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No Divine Intervention Here; Falwell Loses Bid to Shut Down Parody Web Site

June 6, 2002

No Divine Intervention Here; Falwell Loses Bid to Shut Down Parody Web Site

World Intellectual Property Organization Rules in Favor of Illinois Resident

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The Rev. Jerry Falwell today lost his bid to silence a critic who created a Web site that uses Falwell’s name in its address and parodies the reverend’s statements.

At issue is a noncommercial Web site established by Illinois resident Gary Cohn that mocks Falwell for blaming the September 11 attacks on the supposed moral decline of America and parodies the way Falwell cites Bible verses to make moral judgments. The site can be found under the domain names jerryfalwell.com and jerryfallwell.com.

Falwell had claimed to hold a trademark on his name because of his fame and argued that the site wasn’t parody. He had asked the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) to strip the site of its domain names.

However, in a 2-1 vote, a WIPO mediation panel today ruled against Falwell, saying that Falwell had failed to show that his name – even though well-known – has been used as a trademark to label particular goods or services. Without trademark status, the use of a name in a Web site is considered a legitimate, noncommercial fair use. In fact, the panel noted, Falwell has been careful to avoid the suggestion that he has exploited his name for commercial reasons and had told the WIPO that he has used his name principally to advance his religious views.

Further, “[w]hether regarded as a parody, satire, or critical commentary, the majority [of the panel] believes that legitimate noncommercial fair use commentary is involved,” the panel wrote. “Whether the commentary is in good taste, whether it is funny, whether it is effective, all is beside the point.” Click here to view a copy of the ruling.

“This is a victory for First Amendment rights on the Internet,” said Paul Alan Levy, the Public Citizen attorney who represented Cohn in the case. “Without the domain name, the Web site would likely be much harder to find. We are pleased that the panel agreed that Mr. Cohn has a right to use Falwell’s name when criticizing him, and has every right to do so on the Internet. Also, Public Citizen thanks Philadelphia lawyer John Berryhill for his assistance in defending this case.”