Can Anyone Help HelpAReporterOut Understand That Competition Is Perfectly Legal
from the nothing-wrong-with-competition dept
If you’re a reporter or in PR, you’ve almost certainly heard of HelpAReporterOut or HARO. It’s a service started by Peter Shankman a few years back to connect “sources” to reporters looking for sources. The “creation story” was that Shankman kept hearing from reporters asking for sources on certain stories, since Shankman is a notorious networker, and so he decided to set up a mailing list to facilitate such intros. Of course, Shankman also admitted that he was doing this to take on ProfNet, a similar service that has been around for years, which PRNewswire purchased, and which isn’t free for everyone. After Shankman got enough subscribers, he eventually started selling ads and set up a simple website for the service. Apparently, it makes a pretty good amount of money.
However, it seems that he doesn’t like upstart competition. Ryan Waggoner set up a site called PRManna.com, which he had no problem admitting was inspired by HARO, but which focused on just startups and tech bloggers/journalists. Rather than being flattered, however, Shankman sent out the lawyers who sent out a cease and desist with a bunch of claims that seem unlikely to hold up in court. You can read the full cease & desist (pdf) to see all the arguments.
Basically, Shankman and his lawyers appear to be implying that it’s illegal to be inspired by another site (and to admit it). But that’s simply not true. They imply infringement on copyrights, trademarks and (unissued) patents — as well as publicity rights and trade dress. It’s like the grand slam of what’s included in intellectual property law. Or, perhaps a better way of thinking about it is, if you don’t have anything you can actually pin on the guy, why not throw the kitchen sink at him and hope he caves.
It’s not clear where the copyright claim comes from. Shankman’s lawyers say that Waggoner directly copied content from HARO, though I haven’t seen that specifically. If that’s the case, there may be an issue, but from what I can see, the two do appear to be pretty different. The two sites do have similar setups, but that’s not illegal. Most blogs look generally similar. Most e-commerce sites look generally similar. Most news sites look generally similar. Most search engines look generally similar. So, what’s the issue here? No one is going to look at one of these sites and confuse it for the other one — not even the proverbial moron in a hurry, favored by trademark lawyers everywhere.
Next, Shankman’s lawyers seem to think that Waggoner’s acknowledgment of inspiration from HARO is a problem. This one strikes me as particularly funny. Most of the time, we hear about how many people would feel better about such situations, if the later participant at least credited who inspired them — but in this case, Shankman’s lawyers seem to be implying that this is illegal, though (tellingly) they don’t cite what law this violates (that’s because it doesn’t violate any).
Then there are the desperation plays: claiming a violation of NY state’s trade dress laws by “bad faith misappropriation of the labors and expenditures of another…” Except there’s a bit problem for Shankman here, in that there doesn’t appear to be any misappropriation of anything. Waggoner set up a different service that was inspired by Shankman, but that’s not misappropriation. Should we only be allowed one fast food burger place? Or one pizza joint? Competition is the hallmark of American capitalism, and given Shankman’s ongoing verbal competition with ProfNet, he should know that better than anyone. Furthermore, Shankmans’ lawyers imply this was “deceptive,” but there’s no deception at all. Waggoner clearly states he was inspired by Shankman, but then wanted to do something better, targeted at a different niche.
Then there’s the publicity/privacy rights claims (again under NY state law). While I’m not as familiar with New York’s publicity rights laws, it seems silly that a note accurately explaining how you were inspired by someone to start a service would run afoul of any publicity rights law. It certainly didn’t imply endorsement by Shankman.
Also, it’s amusing that the lawyers warn of a pending patent, but since the patent hasn’t issued (or even been published, as far as I can tell) they never bother to mention it again. I’m sorry, but you can’t patent connecting sources to reporters.
Anyway, given all this, it’s particularly ridiculous that Shankman’s lawyers then demand not only that Waggoner cease from operating the site, but that he also turn over his domain names to Shankman.
In the comments to Waggoner’s blog post about this, another person claims that she received a similar legal nastygram from Shankman’s lawyers a while back upon starting another similar, but niche-focused service.
Either way, Shankman should apologize to Waggoner, and admit that you can’t copyright, trademark or patent just an idea. Competition is a good thing, and the fact that Shankman seems too afraid to actually compete in the marketplace perhaps says something about the quality of his service. I’d heard good things about HARO for a while, but incidents like this make me wonder.