Managing a Web Site? You may be Liable for Infringements on your Site

Managing a Web Site? You may be Liable for Infringements on your Site

March 30, 2016

A person searches his name in an Internet search engine just out of curiosity and learn, to his surprise, that the first result includes a quotation that jeopardizes his reputation. He turns to the website to which the result leads but the owner of the website refuses to change the content of the website. Is there liability to the owner of the website? Is there liability to the company that operates the search engine?

Recently Israeli Court discussed the case of a lawyer who represented the Israeli Bar Association in disciplinary proceedings against another lawyer convicted of five different affairs. Later, when the representing lawyer searched his name on the Google search engine he discovered that the top result redirected to a website that stated "lawyer convicted of five different affairs." Thus, the ordinary person immediately concludes that the lawyer that was convicted is the representing lawyer. The lawyer demanded the amendment of publication and when his demand was ignored he filed a defamation claim against both the owner of the website and Google.

The owner of the website argued that Google is responsible and Google argued that the website is responsible because the search result automatically copies the text from the website's technical code. The Court held that this was indeed defamation. In relation to Google the Court held that Google has no possibility to amend the technical code or change it while the website could easily change the title, but because Google was aware that the publication was not true it was required to remove it from the search engine. Because Google has not done so, the Court ordered Google and the owner of the website, jointly and severally, to compensate the lawyer for the false and abusive publication.

Managing a website may expose the owner of the website not only to defamation liability but also to other violations of rights. For example, a website may use another's trademark or a copyrighted image or text and later be liable for that use. Similarly, sometimes rights not registered in a public registry (e.g., know-how or samples or developments not yet registered as a patent) may also be protected under the doctrine of unjust enrichment.

In light of the above it is important for websites manager to not only ensure that the website does not infringe on the rights of any third party, but also immediately consult with an attorney specializing in the field if and when receiving a request to remove a certain publication. If indeed a publication infringes on rights of another it is importent not to reject the demand carelessly but act to reduce the damage by removing the publication or amending it, as required. It should be clarified, that removal or amendment of a publication does not always remove the liability but will certainly reduce it.