Judge puts brakes on Ford

Summary:Car maker's drive to scrap BlueOvalNews.com Web site blows a gasket, but Ford still claims checkered flag in the dispute.

A Web site for Ford enthusiasts scored a First Amendment victory over the Big Three car maker in a Detroit courthouse on Tuesday.

U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Edmunds put the brakes on Ford Motor Co.'s legal drive to scrap BlueOvalNews.com -- lifting a restraining order against the site and throwing out a trademark infringement suit filed against it by Ford on Aug. 25. However, the judge ruled that BlueOvalNews must reveal the sources of the internal Ford documents it had been posting.

BlueOvalNews publishes articles about Ford technologies and products, such as the Mustang sports car. The site's owner is Robert Lane, 32, of Dearborn, Mich.

In its Aug. 25 filing, Ford sought a temporary restraining order requiring BlueOvalNews to discontinue its practice of posting internal Ford documents.

Absolved of trade secret violations
In court Tuesday, Lane was absolved of violating Michigan trade secret protection laws by posting those documents.

Edmunds said, however, that Lane will be prevented from using in the future any materials that are copyrighted by Ford, including unpublished documents that he knows belong to the company.

"In the realm of law, we are only beginning to grapple with the impact of the communications revolution, and this case represents just one part of one skirmish, a clash between our commitment to the freedom of speech and the press, and our dedication to the protection of commercial innovation and intellectual property. In this case, the battle is won by the First Amendment," wrote Edmunds in her opinion.

Edmunds denied Ford's attempt to obtain an injunction that would prevent Lane from posting internal Ford documents, saying that the company did produce substantial evidence to support its claim that Lane violated the Michigan Uniform Trade Secrets Act. However, preventing Lane from posting such material would be a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, she wrote.

The Uniform Trade Secrets Act allows injunctions to be issued against those who misappropriate trade secret materials. Misappropriation includes the acquisition of a trade secret by a person who knows or has reason to know that the trade secret was acquired improperly.

It also refers to disclosure or use of a trade secret without expressed or implied consent by a party who obtained it improperly or had reason to know it was obtained improperly, according to court transcripts.

'Temporary restraint' improper
"Even a temporary restraint on pure speech is improper, absent the 'most compelling circumstances,' " the judge wrote in her opinion.

At the same time she threw out the trademark infringement aspect of the suit, focused on Lane's use of Ford logos on BlueOvalNews.com, stating that Lane has willingly removed the logos from the site.

Despite the absolution of the Lane -- who posted some 40 internal Ford documents in his possession between the time he was notified of the lawsuit and the time the restraining order was issued -- he will not be allowed to post new confidential Ford documents on BlueOvalNews.com.

The judge ruled that Lane will be prohibited from infringing upon Ford copyrights in the future. This includes the use of documents known by Lane to have been written by Ford employees or commissioned by Ford. He is also prevented from soliciting Ford employees for trade secrets or other confidential information, the judge ruled.

Judge: Reveal your sources
Lane will also still have to give up his sources, the judge ruled.

He was also ordered to comply with the temporary restraining order, which requires him to supply the court and Ford with a sworn statement that identifies Ford internal documents in his possession or control and the source where each came from, either by name or description, and provide details of how they were acquired.

Lane said in court that he does not know who the sources of the documents are. They are delivered, he said, via mail, placed in his post office box and sometimes left in the bed of one of his pickup trucks. Lane lives close to Ford's Dearborn, Mich., headquarters.

Ford officials issued a statement saying the company is "pleased" with the decision.

"By prohibiting Mr. Lane from copying Ford's internal documents in violation of the copyright laws, but not prohibiting Mr. Lane from using his own words to express his own views and opinions, Judge Edmunds has balanced and protected the constitutional rights of both parties," the statement read in part.

Lane: Victory
Lane this morning claimed victory in a message to readers.

"This once again demonstrates that average Americans can do remarkable things when it comes to our freedoms, even when faced by huge corporations such as the Ford Motor Co. Never believe that you can't fight big business and win."

For other Ford Web site proprietors, the BlueOvalNews.com case represents the need for previously agreed upon standards.

Said Dan, the Webmaster at another Ford-oriented Web site: "What enthusiasts like me want to know is what is acceptable and not acceptable to Ford. What I would like to see is for Ford to publish some kind of 'dos' and 'do nots' on its Web site as part of a Internet consumer package to tell Webmasters like myself what they will and will not allow us to recreate on our sites. This can be followed up by having graphics, symbols and other materials that are universally acceptable to Ford and to Webmasters alike."

"This way toes would not be stepped on, enthusiast sites would not be attacked, and we could all enjoy the fruits that the Internet has to offer to our passion."

Topics: Legal, Patents

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.