Copycat U: UVA fends off imitators
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery–- but the University of Virginia has two imitators in cyberspace that it doesn't find sufficiently flattering to tolerate: a Middle Eastern university with a similarly styled website, and a creepy blog that purports to be an official UVA website, but smells more like rumor-mongering Juicycampus.com.
"We got three emails from media representatives in the Middle East saying that the Islamic University of Gaza has ripped off our website," says UVA spokeswoman Carol Wood. "Ours is totally copyrighted."
So Wood fired off a letter to Islamic U. "This is a cause of great concern to us," she wrote, "as well as to the individuals in your region who have reported it to us. We ask that you take down this design immediately and replace it with a design of your own."
The Islamic University of Gaza did not immediately respond to inquiries from the Hook about its allegedly purloined website design.
"It seems to me there's some likely copying here, but would it be a close case as to whether the copying would make them liable," says UVA law prof Chris Sprigman, noting that jurisdiction presents an even dicier issue. "I don't know if Gaza has a functioning judicial system," he says.
"What's the harm here?" he asks. "The Islamic University of Gaza and the University of Virginia are not in hot competition for students and faculty. Sending a letter seems a little bit like a giant versus a pygmy."
As for the fake University of Virginia news blog, with its first words of attribution it makes clear it's not an official organ: "Students and Memeber's [sic] of UVA." Speaking of organs, photos of genitalia and slurs against women provide hefty clues this isn't a site sanctioned by Mr. Jefferson's university.
The blog seems to document a bad break-up, and because at least one or both parties named on the site–- a man and woman who used to date–- are victims of potentially libelous comments, the Hook is not identifying them. Wood is concerned about the blog for a couple of reasons.
"We have our new blog [uvatoday.org/blog], and the name is so similar," she says. "It's using the University's name to confuse people and to legitimize something that's not the University."
Wood sent a request to Google, which owns Blogger, to force the anonymous creator "to immediately change the name of this site and delete any reference to the University of Virginia as the source of the content for the blog."
"We take violations of the Terms of Service very seriously, as such activities diminish the experience for our users," says a Google spokesperson, who requested his name not be used. "If we determine that flagged content violates our Terms of Service, we act quickly to remove it. In this instance, we have found that the University of Virginia News blog does not violate our Terms of Service."
Yet Blogger's own standards include several conditions that seemingly would warrant removal of the fake UVA site: hate against a protected group, adult or pornographic images, and impersonated user identity.
Google has put up a content warning to notify readers they "may find the content of this blog objectionable."
"There's a trademark issue here," says law prof Sprigman. Many universities, including UVA, trademark their names. "The blogger uses the name in a way that might have people thinking wrongly his blog is associated with the University."
Google could be liable for contributory trademark infringement, says Sprigman, but it's "quite difficult" to prevail. A better bet for UVA would be to "subpoena the service provider–- Google–- to get the IP address to get the name of the infringer," he advises.
The two web situations are not equal, says UVA spokesman Jeff Hanna. The blog "is a disturbing one with our name on it and is more egregious."
Just before this story went online, the Islamic University of Gaza appears to have altered its website to less obviously mimic UVA's design. And anyway, Hanna reports that UVA is launching a new website in a month that will make concerns about the Gaza university site "moot."
[The original online version of this story provided a link to the creepy blog, but in the interests of not exacerbating the harm that might be done by the anonymous blogger, the creepy blog has been delinked– editor. 4:33pm, Wednesday, July 30]