Until recently, some Internet navigators who thought they were heading for Italy's business bible, Il Sole 24 Ore, would get a rude shock when they landed on a pornographic Web site with a similar name and virtually identical graphic design. Investors looking for an update on the performance of their shares or an analysis of the Italian economy would instead find scantily clad women in a variety of provocative poses. That was until the real Il Sole's lawyers stepped in and persuaded a magistrate to order the sequestration of the red light site.
The affected online readers of Il Sole were typing www.ils in their address line and ending up instead at www.ilsesso24ore.it, a pornographic site operated by Medianet Srl, an Internet Service Provider (ISP) based in the central Italian town of Terni, a lawyer for Il Sole 24 Ore said Monday. "Clients were starting to call and complain," said Caterina Malavenda, a Milan lawyer acting on the newspaper's behalf. "The paper asked us to report the site and we were fairly quick, we managed to have it sequestered within 48 hours," Malavenda said in a telephone interview.
"They had not only used a similar name to the paper's, but the color and the graphic design were identical," she said. "It caused some smiles. None of us are bigots. But the diversion of clients onto another site, and above all the type of site, was damaging the newspaper's interests. If it had been a site selling cars or scuba diving gear it might not have been so bad," Malavenda said.
The problem first emerged at the end of June, when dozens of complaints were received by Il Sole's customer relations department. Visitors to www.ilsesso24ore.it -- Il Sole's address is www.ilsole24ore.com -- are today likely to find a message from the Interior Ministry informing them that the site has been shut down on the orders of the Terni public prosecutor's office. Ironically, the case was first reported in an online newspaper dedicated to journalism -- www.ilbarbieredellasera.it -- which is itself a spoof of the prestigious Milan daily Corriere della Sera, converting the "Evening Courier" into the "Evening Barber."
For all its comic aspect, the episode raises serious issues about the protection of trademarks on the Internet. "As far as I am aware, no Italian Web site has ever been sequestered for this type of offense before. They had to mobilize a special team of the communications police in order to get it done," Malavenda said, adding, "Freedom of expression is a sacred principle, but this was a case of trademark piracy."
The Terni prosecutors have agreed to extend the trademark protection guaranteed under article 473 of Italy's penal code to the Internet arena, Malavenda said. "In the absence of specific legislation for Internet, the only solution is for magistrates to intervene and fix limits to behavior through the sentences of the courts. This gives a semblance of discipline to a sector that is really more like the Wild West," she said.
Medianet's lawyers are preparing to appeal against the sequestration of the site and the company is ready to take the issue to the Court of Cassation, Italy's equivalent of the Supreme Court, a company spokesman said. "We had sent Il Sole 24 Ore an e-mail alerting them to our initiative but we got no answer," William Peruzzi said in a telephone interview.
Medianet, which has two other sites based on the distortion of well known newspapers' names -- www.ilsessaggero.it, a variant on the Rome daily Il Messaggero, and www.ilcorrieredelsesso.it, which borrows the title of the Milan daily -- deliberately refrained from inserting the Il Sole variant on search engines, Peruzzi said. Internet is an ideal forum for the borrowing of ideas, he insisted. A mildly erotic site, www.hot.it, which is owned by Il Sole 24 Ore, had actually purloined some of Medianet's articles on sex from the Terni company's search engine www.trovasesso.it, the company spokesman said.
"We have the support of a lot of providers, as the arrogance of the 'bigger brother' has been excessive," Peruzzi said. "They could have just sent us a message saying the similarities between the two sites were too strong and asking us to change ours. Our intention is to work, not to cause trouble," he said.
Peruzzi acknowledges the need for regulation, even in the anarchic world of Internet. "Completely deregulated things don't work very well. They tend to lapse into chaos, so there has to be a minimum of regulation. But the netiquette rules we have already are sufficient, otherwise thousands of new navigators wouldn't be taking to the Web every day."
Il Sole 24 Ore's firm action against its erotic emulator is not the only sign of a determination to protect brand identity on the Net. A Rome lawyer, Nino Marazzita, has announced his intention to create an international pool of lawyers to protect the interests of celebrities who are being used to attract customers to pornographic Web sites. The names and images of popular Italian actresses such as Monica Bellucci, Claudia Koll and Anna Falchi are being used without authorization to promote pornographic sites, Marazzita told reporters Sunday. His legal team, named Sites False Friends, will offer them redress, he was quoted as saying.
Earlier this year the Italian confectionery manufacturer Ferrero SpA took legal action in Germany to prevent the use of the domain names Gnutella.de and Newtella.de for online file sharing. The association of Ferrero's family-friendly chocolate spread, Nutella, with "a virtual conglomerate of copyright pirates" was highly damaging to the company's image, lawyers for Ferrero argued. A Cologne court agreed and on February 19 ordered the owner of Gnutella.de to stop using his domain name, the Industry Standard magazine reported at the time.