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Thursday, 8 June, 2000, 10:00 GMT 11:00 UK
'Invisible' web code infringes trademark
Road haulage rivals went to court over trademark tags
By BBC News Online internet reporter
Mark Ward

A trademark is a trademark even if only a computer can read it, according to a UK high court ruling.

Last month Road Tech, a road haulage software company, clashed in court with its rival Mandata over the use of its trademarks in the meta-tags of Mandata's website.

Meta-tags provide a succinct description of the contents of a webpage and are usually invisible to humans browsing web pages.

However many of the webpage reading programs used by search engines consult meta-tags to find out about that site. The keywords in the meta-tags are used to index the page.

Trademark traffic

Road Tech went to court when it found that Mandata was using its Roadrunner trademark in their meta-tags.

Hertfordshire-based Road Tech claimed Mandata was using the trademark to attract potential customers away from its own website.

Playboy lost a meta-tag lawsuit in December 1999
Now the High Court has ruled that Mandata did infringe copyright by using the trademarks.

It has been told to pay damages to Road Tech and the legal costs of both sides. The total bill is expected to be 80,000.

Derek Beevor, managing director of Road Tech said he hoped the ruling would clarify the legal position on the use of trademarks in meta-tags.

"We think there is a lot of this going on but it has never been tested in law in the UK before now," he said.

A spokesman for Mandata said the company had no comment to make.

Playboy problem

The High Court decision is the first ruling on meta-tags in the UK but in the US Playboy lost a similar case against former Playmate Terri Welles.

She used the Playboy name in the meta-tags for her website and the court ruled that as she had appeared in the magazine in the early 1980s she had a right to use the name.

Many websites cram as many words as possible into meta-tags to ensure they are ranked as highly relevant on search engines.

But surfers can see meta-tags if they want to. Users of Internet Explorer should look under the "View" menu and click "source." Netscape users should look also look on the "View" menu, but under "Page Source."

Some search sites, such as AltaVista, Excite and Lycos, have got wise to these tricks and don't boost ratings on the basis of meta-tag information.

But putting keywords in meta-tags is just one of the tricks that websites can use to boost their rankings on search sites.

Some websites hide keywords on the front page of their websites by making them the same colour as the background page.

Some of the automatic reading programs read the front page of a website rather than its meta-tags.

Other search engines such as Inktomi and Google rate the relevance of a website on the number of other sites on that subject that connect to it.

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