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Personal Jurisdiction and the Internet:
Where Can You Sue, Where Can You Be Sued?

Overview
Cases
Background Notes

Overview

The question of personal jurisdiction has arisen in a growing number of Internet cases. The overarching principle seems to be that the likelihood that personal jurisdiction will be exercised is directly proportionate to the level of “interactivity” with which a business uses the Internet (though what counts as interactivity depends which court is doing the analysis), the amount of business derived from a particular geographic territory, and whether the defendant has non-Internet links with the proposed forum state.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic see our Background Notes

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Cases

CompuServe, Inc. v. Patterson, 89 F.3d 1257 (6th Cir. 1996)

The defendant was a Texas-based developer of shareware, which he distributed through CompuServe, located in Ohio, under an agreement. The court held that the defendant could be subjected to suit by CompuServe in Ohio, even though he had never been there and had minimal actual dealings with CompuServe, given the ongoing nature of the relationship and its significance to the defendant’s business.

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Bensusan Restaurant Corp. v. King, 126 F.3d 25 (2d Cir. 1997)

The defendant was the operator of a Missouri jazz club and a non-interactive website advertising the club. The court held that the defendant could not be subjected to suit in New York by the plaintiff, which owned an identically named club there, given an unusually restrictive New York long-arm statute which required that a defendant be physically present in the state when committing the alleged tortious acts from which the suit arose.

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Cybersell, Inc. v. Cybersell, Inc., 130 F.3d 414 (9th Cir. 1997)

The defendant was a Florida-based provider of web-page construction services. The court held that the defendant could not be subjected to suit in Arizona by the plaintiff, an Internet marketing firm based there, where there was no evidence that the defendant had ever transacted business with any Arizona resident.

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Hornell Brewing Co. v. The Rosebud Sioux Tribal Court, 133 F.3d 1087 (8th Cir. 1998)

A case involving not the issue of personal jurisdiction, but the subject-matter jurisdiction of an Indian tribal court. The defendants, non-Indian brewers of an alcoholic beverage called “The Original Crazy Horse Malt Liquor,” were sued by the estate of the 19th-century Oglala Sioux leader for defamation, infringement of the right of publicity, and infliction of emotional distress. The court held that the defendants could not be subjected to suit before the Rosebud Sioux Tribal Court (in South Dakota), reasoning that Internet advertising of the subject beverage could not be seen as having occurred “on” the Rosebud Sioux reservation, although it was obviously available there.

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Panavision International, L.P. v. Toeppen, 938 F.Supp. 616 (C.D. Cal. 1998)

The defendant was an Illinois-based cybersquatter. The court held that he could be subjected to suit in California for infringement of trademarks held by the plaintiffs, companies based there. Under the “effects doctrine,” it was obvious to the defendant that the harm flowing from his conduct would be “felt” where the plaintiff companies had their principal place of business, and he was therefore deemed to have made himself amenable to suit there. The court rejected the defendant’s arguments that entities of plaintiffs’ size do not “feel effects” in one place as individual parties do, and that plaintiffs’ injuries occurred “in cyberspace."

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Inset Systems, Inc. v. Instruction Set, Inc., 937 F.Supp. 161 (D. Conn. 1996)

The defendant was a Massachusetts-based technology company. The court held that the defendant could be subjected to suit in Connecticut by the plaintiff, a software company based there, given that the defendant had advertised on the Internet, and would not have to travel far to litigate the case.

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Maritz, Inc. v. Cybergold, Inc., 947 F.Supp. 1328 (E.D. Mo. 1996)

The defendant was a California-based Internet advertising service. The court held that the defendant could be subjected to suit in Missouri by the plaintiff, a competitor based there. Although the defendant’s service had not yet become available, its website, inviting users to subscribe to the service via a “mailto” link, had resulted in 131 “hits” from Missouri users other than the plaintiff, constituting sufficient contact with Missouri to permit suit there.

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Heroes, Inc. v. Heroes Foundation
District for the District of Columbia, Civil Action Number 96-1260, September 19, 1996

The defendant was a New York-based charitable organization. The court held that it could be subjected to suit in the District of Columbia by the plaintiff, a D.C.-based charitable organization claiming trademark infringement. The defendant maintained a website with a “mailto” link, and had also approved the placement of an advertisement in the Washington Post directed to D.C. residents.

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Zippo Mfg. Co. v. Zippo Dot Com, Inc., 952 F.Supp. 1119 (W.D. Pa. 1997)

The defendant was a California-based operator of an Internet news service. The court held that the defendant could be subjected to suit in Pennsylvania by the plaintiff, a non-Internet manufacturer, given that the defendant had contracted over the Internet with some 3,000 individuals in Pennsylvania, agreeing to provide them with the services that were the subject of the lawsuit.

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Digital Equipment Corp. v. AltaVista Technology, Inc., United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Civil Action Number 96-12192, March 12, 1997

The defendant was a California-based developer of Internet products. The court held that the defendant could be subjected to suit in Massachusetts by plaintiff Digital, in a dispute over use of the AltaVista trademark, given the defendant’s ongoing licensing agreement with Digital and the agreement’s significance to the defendant’s business.

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Weber v. Jolly Hotels, 977 F.Supp. 327 (D.N.J. 1997)

The defendant was an Italian hotel chain and the operator of a non-interactive website advertising the chain. The court held that the defendant could not be subjected to suit in New Jersey by the plaintiff, who had been injured while staying in one of defendant’s hotels, reasoning that the use of such a website was no different than advertising in a national magazine, by itself insufficient to create nationwide jurisdiction.

To read the Court's opinion click here.

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Hasbro, Inc. v. Clue Computing, Inc., 994 F.Supp. 34 (D. Mass. 1997)

The defendant was a Colorado-based computer consulting company. The court held that it could be subjected to suit in Massachusetts by the plaintiff, a toy and game manufacturer based there which sought to challenge the defendant’s registration of an allegedly infringing domain name. The defendant’s maintenance of a website with a “mailto” link, and a major contract (unrelated to the dispute with Hasbro) with Massachusetts-based Digital Equipment Corporation were sufficient “contacts” with Massachusetts to make the defendant amenable to suit there.

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Thompson v. Handa-Lopez, Inc., 998 F.Supp. 783 (W.D. Tex. 1998)

The defendant was the California-based operator of a gambling website. The court held that the defendant could be subjected to suit in Texas by the plaintiff, who alleged that the defendant had fraudulently refused to pay his winnings. The defendant had advertised on the Internet, and had required the plaintiff, in Texas, to enter into a clickwrap agreement before playing. The court appeared unwilling to enforce a clause in the clickwrap agreement requiring that any disputes be resolved by arbitration in California.

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Telephone Audio Productions, Inc. v. Smith, N.D. Tex., Mar. 26, 1998

The defendant was an Ohio-based marketer of telephone advertising played while a caller is on hold. The court held that the defendant could be subjected to suit in Texas by the plaintiff, which owned a trademark allegedly infringed by the defendant. The defendant had (1) maintained an (apparently passive) Internet site; (2) advertised in a magazine read in Texas; (3) attended a trade show there; and (4) received orders from Texas customers.

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Blumenthal v. Drudge, 992 F.Supp. 44 (D.D.C. 1998)

The defendant was the California-based publisher of an Internet gossip site. The court held that the defendant could be subjected to suit in Washington, D.C. by the plaintiffs, White House employees Sidney and Jacqueline Blumenthal, who had allegedly been defamed by a 1997 report on the Drudge site. The court focused on (1) the interactivity of the site, which had a mailto link enabling browsers to e-mail Drudge with information and subscriptions, and which published new editions of Drudge’s report directly to e-mail subscribers; (2) the site’s preoccupation with political gossip involving Washington; and (3) Drudge’s occasional visits to Washington, and his solicitation and receipt of information and $250 in financial contributions from D.C. residents.

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Vitullo v. Velocity Powerboats, Inc., 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7120, N.D. Ill., Apr. 27, 1998

The principal defendant was the Florida-based manufacturer of a powerboat involved in an accident on Lake Michigan near Chicago, in which the plaintiff, an Illinois resident, was injured, and her husband was killed. The court held that the defendant could be subjected to suit in Illinois. The court focused upon (1) the defendant’s maintenance of a website with a “mailto” link; (2) an invitation posted on the site to attend the Chicago Boat Show and see the defendant’s products; and (3) the defendant’s relationship with a Michigan boat dealer known to sell to customers from Illinois.

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Scherr v. Abrahams, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 8531, N.D. Ill., May 29, 1998

The defendants were the Massachusetts-based publishers of a science-satire magazine. The court held that the defendant could not be subjected to suit in Illinois by the plaintiff, publisher of a competing magazine. The defendant’s publication of a version of his magazine on the Internet, with a mailto link and free e-mail subscription option (compare Drudge), was insufficient “contact” with Illinois to create jurisdiction.

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No Mayo-San Francisco v. Memminger, 1998 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13154, N.D. Cal., Aug. 20, 1998

The defendant was a Hawaii-based newspaper humor columnist and registrant of the disputed Internet domain name. The court held that the defendant could not be subjected to suit in California by the plaintiff, a non-profit organization based there which claimed rights to the name. Rejecting an argued analogy to the Panavision/Toeppen case, the court held that the defendant here was not alleged to be a “cyber-pirate,” but apparently had a history of good-faith use of the name, and there was minimal evidence of any contact with California or its residents.

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Conseco, Inc. v. Hickerson, 698 N.E. 2d. 816 (Ind. Ct. App. 1998)

The defendant was a Texas-based individual who published on his website a request for information (with a mailto link) concerning unfair business practices of the plaintiff insurers. The court held that the defendant could not be subjected to suit in Indiana by the plaintiffs, who alleged inter alia that the defendant had infringed and diluted their trademark. Mere discussion of an Indiana-based company on the defendant’s website was not sufficient “contact” with the state to create jurisdiction.

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3D Systems, Inc. v. Aarotech Laboratories, Inc., Federal Circuit, Civil Action Number 97-1514, Nov. 12, 1998

The defendants were a Virginia-based manufacturer of "stereolithography" or "rapid-prototyping" equipment, its president, and its parent company, also based in Virginia. Reversing a lower court's dismissal of the case, the appeals court held that the subsidiary could be subject to a patent-infringement suit by a competitor in California, given its communications with prospective buyers in that state. The parent company, however, could not be made a defendant, since its only contact with California was in maintaining an "essentially passive" website; nor could the president, since his actions were all done in his capacity as an officer of the subsidiary.

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Millenium Enterprises, Inc. v. Millenium Music, LP, United States District Court for the District of Oregon, Civil Action Number 98-1058-AA, January 4, 1999

The defendant was the operator of a chain of South Carolina retail music stores, which had begun to sell a small number of products on an Internet site. The court held that the defendant could not be subjected to suit in Oregon by the plaintiff, which owned similarly named music stores in Portland, also sold products on an Internet site, and claimed that the defendant had infringed its trademark. The defendant's non-Internet contacts with Oregon (ordering a small number of products from a Portland distributor) were insignificant, and although the defendant's website was somewhat "interactive" in that it permitted visitors to order products, join a discount club, and request franchising information, the site appeared targeted to the local market served by defendant's stores, and certainly not in any meaningful sense directed at Oregon. The defendant had sold only one CD through its site to a customer in Oregon--who was later revealed to have contacts with plaintiff's counsel, to the court's evident displeasure.

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