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CompuServe Sues Subscriber Over On-Line Remarks Against Company : Communications: Dispute arises as government and industry work out the rules determining who will control what moves over the information highway.

March 10, 1994|AMY HARMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A tussle between the CompuServe Information Service and one of its subscribers is raising questions over who gets to say what on the privately owned stretches of the information highway.

Richard Patterson, computer software developer and frequent contributor to CompuServe's on-line discussion groups, was piqued last December when the company announced plans to release a product that he believed infringed his trademark. And he said so, on a CompuServe forum.

CompuServe modified the name of its program and filed suit, asking a federal court in Ohio to find that it had not infringed on Patterson's trademarks. But CompuServe didn't stop there; it also threatened to cut off Patterson's CompuServe account if he mentioned on-line anything to do with the dispute.

"Our request that Mr. Patterson stop using CompuServe's on-line services to disparage the company is simply good old-fashioned common sense," CompuServe's attorney, Kevin J. Osterkamp, said in a statement. "After all, why should CompuServe--or any on-line service--allow a disgruntled party the opportunity to bad-mouth the company in its own forum?"

Osterkamp gave the same reply to Brian Livingston, a columnist for InfoWorld, a trade journal. "Why indeed?" Livingston responded in a piece critical of CompuServe. "It's called 'a free exchange of ideas.' It is much sought after by people around the world."

The CompuServe dispute comes at a time when government and industry are hashing out the rules which will determine who has access to a digital network that promises to deliver an array of interactive services to Americans over the next decade--and who will control what goes over it.

On-line services such as CompuServe, a Columbus, Ohio, unit of H&R Block, are seen as the forerunners to these futuristic systems. The three major services--CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online--have been expanding rapidly.

A great attraction of such services is that they serve as common meeting places for people who can dial from all over the globe and find information and discussions on almost any subject. But the CompuServe dispute is a reminder that these "public" forums are privately owned, and that in the information age, freedom of the press still belongs to those who own one.

"I think it's unwise of CompuServe to suppress opinions that are critical," said Mike Godwin, attorney for the nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation in Washington. "I think what users look to when they look to communicate on on-line services is the ability to speak freely."

Policies restricting speech may send even more users to the Internet, a loosely organized web of computer networks that isn't owned by any one person or entity.

Prodigy has come under fire in the past for its policy of censoring obscene language from its electronic bulletin boards. And all three services have policies that govern what subjects can be broached in a given area. You can't fill up the IBM forum with messages about Macintoshes. CompuServe also prohibits members from promoting competitors on its forums.

Barry Berkov, CompuServe's executive vice president, said the firm went to great lengths to patch things up with Patterson before sending him the warning. "You have to push us pretty far before we get nasty," Berkov said. "We definitely do not make a policy of trying to censor the stuff that is on our forums. But there are no particular First Amendment rights to being a member of an information service. An information service has every right to refuse to have someone as a customer."

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