The Phoenix New Times is well on track to publishing its Best of Phoenix 2010 issue later this month, with billboards and ads already heralding its arrival. But it turns out the next two years of the newspaper’s annual hot list have already hit a road block.
The alternative weekly and its parent company, Village Voice Media Holdings, filed a federal lawsuit Friday against one of the newspaper’s former employees, accusing him of Internet piracy and trademark violations for cybersquatting on the website domain names bestofphoenix2011.com and bestofphoenix2012.com.
The newspaper is demanding that the ex-worker, Ty Liebig of Phoenix, surrender the domain names and pay them as much as $200,000 in damages for refusing to give up the URLs when asked.
In an email late Monday, Liebig said, “I’m not aware of any lawsuit against me at this time.” He did not comment any further. He also has not responded to the lawsuit in court.
At stake for the newspaper and its parent company is a formula that has been successful for years.
The annual Best of Phoenix list, which highlights outstanding businesses, people and events throughout the Phoenix area, is a financial boon for the paper, with its printed version packed thick with ads from companies that are either on the list or hope to be someday.
The strategy for Village Voice Media, a Phoenix-based company that owns the largest chain of alternative weekly newspapers in the U.S., has been so successful that it replicates the list at its publications all across the nation.
As part of the local strategy, the Phoenix New Times buys specific, branded URLs to promote its annual issue and get readers to vote for their favorite businesses and people. This year, for example, the company has been pointing people to bestofphoenix2010.com. Last year it was bestofphoenix2009.com.
According to the lawsuit, Liebig likely recognized the success during the brief time he worked at the newspaper in 2008.
Though the lawsuit didn’t say exactly what position he had there, it did say Liebig worked at the newspaper from May 1 until Aug. 11 of that year, a little more than three months in all. It was during that short stint, the company alleges, that Liebig purchased the two Best of Phoenix domain names for himself.
Later, when the newspaper went to buy domain names through the year 2020, it discovered Liebig already owned them for 2011 and 2012.
Now, the newspaper claims it has a right to the website URLs that Liebig purchased because it owns the federal trademark for the term “Best of Phoenix,” which it was awarded back in 1997.
Liebig’s position is simple, according to the lawsuit: He wants to get paid.
As part of the suit, the company produced a series of emails sent between Liebig and Village Voice Media corporate staffers in early August.
“VVM aggressively defends its right to the exclusive use of this mark, and it would be compelled to take legal action against anyone infringing on this mark,” corporate executive administrator Elissa Blabac wrote in one of the emails on Aug. 3.
She went on to say that the value of the domain names was “less than zero” to anyone except the newspaper and its parent company because anyone else could be sued for violating the trademark.
Blabac demanded that Liebig turn over the domain names within 48 hours or face the consequences.
Liebig responded the next day: “I am open to and willing to sell those domains,” he wrote. “I still have not received an offer or what you said you considered ‘fair value.’”
A month later, the lawsuit was filed.
John Hay, the lawyer representing Village Voice Media, had little to say about the matter when he was reached on Monday. “The lawsuit basically speaks for itself,” he said.
He declined to comment about whether the company expected to win as much as $200,000 in damages it was demanding from Liebig. He said it would be up to the judge whether to award any money.
“It happens,” Hay said. “But what we’re really looking for is to get those websites back.”