Each week, thousands of people visit my website, www.falwell.com. However, up until late last week, people wishing to visit my site who might have typed www.jerryfalwell.com or www.jerryfallwell.com (accidentally misspelling my name) into their Web browser, would have arrived at a website run by a man who has, for years, utilized my own name to host an anti-Falwell site.
The issue here was not his criticism of me, or my ministry. I face criticism every day from a variety of people and organizations that have the immutable right to criticize me since I am a public figure.
The issue in this case was, rather, that this man was utilizing my own name to launch attacks on me. This was often confusing to friends of my ministries and/or people seeking information on me, or my many ministries, who unintentionally connected to this man’s site.
Thankfully, Jerry Falwell Ministries and I have now officially obtained the right to use my namesake websites, www.jerryfalwell.com and www.jerryfallwell.com.
Lawyers for Gary Cohn, the Illinois man running the anti-Falwell site on the domains www.jerryfalwell.com and www.jerryfallwell.com, informed us last week that they would turn over rights to the domains, rather than engage in the litigation we had planned in the federal court in the Northern District of Illinois (Chicago).
We have been trying to gain the legal rights to the sites since October 2001 when Mr. Cohn was told to cease and desist from his trademark infringement by our intellectual property attorney, John Midlen of Chevy Chase, Md.
After Mr. Cohn refused, in February 2002, our ministries were forced to file a complaint with the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. After WIPO ruled against us in May 2002, we then filed a complaint with the U.S. District Court in Lynchburg, Va., in June 2002, claiming that the sites were an illegal use of my name and trademark and were libelous, unfair competition and “cybersquatting.”
Unfortunately, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., changed the way it interpreted the laws upon which our claim was based while our case was pending and Judge Norman K. Moon dismissed our suit in March, saying the court had no jurisdiction over a website run out of Illinois that wasn’t aimed at a Virginia audience.
Despite this discouraging setback, I believed this man was unlawfully utilizing my name.
Soon after Judge Moon dismissed the suit, our lawyers discovered that my name, Jerry Falwell, had in fact been trademarked in connection with one of our ministry programs, “Listen America with Jerry Falwell.”
One of our ministries, Liberty Alliance, had recently registered my name with the trademark office but did not immediately make that fact known to our lawyers. My son, Jerry Falwell Jr., who serves as general counsel for Thomas Road Baptist Church, said that it’s not clear whether the fact that my name had been trademarked was the deciding factor in convincing Mr. Cohn to surrender the domain name, but it certainly did not hurt.
We are glad that this legal battle has ended victoriously. It is unfortunate that we had to spend two years of valuable time claiming what already belonged to us – my own name.
Jerry Falwell Jr. and Mr. Midlen have also been negotiating, on behalf of Liberty University, with two institutions that have been using Liberty University’s name. A school formerly known as Liberty University of California, located in Sacramento, Calif., changed its name to Lexford University of California last month after our Liberty University advised it of its trademark rights. Liberty is still negotiating with a school called American Liberty University, in Montgomery, Ala., which uses the Internet domain names www.libertyuniversity.edu and www.libertyuniversity.com. (Liberty utilizes the site www.liberty.edu.)
Our attorneys anticipate the Alabama school will relinquish that domain name to Liberty University in Lynchburg and add a disclaimer to its site and print materials without forcing us to litigate.
We are very pleased that all of our related ministries here in Lynchburg now have a strong trademark protection and policing programs in place. John Midlen said that the theft of a person’s or business’s name for use by another as his internet domain name deceives the public and is never justified by resort to First Amendment or noncommercial use arguments.
All churches and Christian ministries should be aware of their legal rights to protect their good names and should take action when necessary to prevent confusion and defamation against them.