There are so many United Airlines customer complaints in the news lately. It’s tough trying to keep them straight. Quick recap:
There was the guy who was dragged bloody through the airplane…
and the toddler who was bumped and had to sit on his mom’s lap for three hours…
and the woman who was kicked in the head for sleeping in an airport chapel…
and the girl who was booted from a plane for wearing leggings…
And so on (and on).
But now, meet Jeremy Cooperstock, a veteran United passenger who sent his first angry letter to the airline 21 years ago–and who has since spent two decades running a website that compiles thousands of United customer complaints.
Of course, once United discovered Cooperstock’s site, the airline worked hard to solve its customers’ problems, making them loyal fliers for life.
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Yeah, right.
Instead, United instead sued Cooperstock for trademark infringement, worked for years in the courts to shut him down–and in his words, tried to make the whole site “disappear.” (Have they never googled the Streisand effect?)
A few days ago, United Airlines won its lawsuit, so this might be your last chance to read about the whole thing. Here’s the story.
The 31,000 customer complaints
Cooperstock’s tale of woe with United begins back in June 1996, when he wrote a lengthy complaint letter to the airline (seriously, it’s long), and got a stock robo-letter reply. He didn’t like that, so he posted his complaint online.
Quick break: Keep in mind how what the Internet was like in1996. Amazon was barely a year old. Google, Youtube and Facebook–heck, Yahoo!–were all way in the future. One of the most popular websites was a continuously refreshing photo of a coffee pot.
Still, somehow, Cooperstock’s anti-United website, which was eventually hosted at untied.com (notice the reversed T and I in the domain) became popular. Ultimately, he added a form that allowed people to post complaints about their experiences with United on the site.
The whole thing grew and grew and grew. To date, Cooperstock says, there are more than 32,000 customer complaints, plus hundreds more from United employees. Here are the entries for June. (You’ll notice they end on June 14. More about that in a second.)
Courts in Canada
United is headquartered in Chicago, but Cooperstock and his website are based in Montreal, where he’s an engineering professor at McGill University. So when United discovered the site and went to the lawyers, they pursued the whole thing in Canadian courts.
Five years ago, a judge in Quebec ruled that Cooperstock was no longer allowed to include the names and contact information of senior United employees on the site. But that was probably the less important of the two court cases that have made news lately.
The other was a trademark infringement suit in Canadian federal court in Ottawa, where United prevailed in late June. The court said Cooperstock’s use of a version of United’s logo on his site, among other things, amounted to trademark infringement. As the Chicago Tribune reported:
The court said Cooperstock can keep the Untied.com web address, but he said he’s uncertain whether he will be able to continue to use it to post passenger complaints. The judge directed United and Cooperstock to submit reports to begin negotiating the terms of the injunction within 45 days.
“I’m planning to appeal the judgement and keep fighting,” Cooperstock told me in an email. Meantime, United sent me this statement:
We are very pleased with the Court’s decision. We have always maintained that Mr. Cooperstock should be able to voice his opinions, and our case was to protect United customers and avoid confusion by asking him to not use our intellectual property on his website and related channels.
If you haven’t already, you might check out Untied.com for context. Personally, it took about a millisecond to recognize that this isn’t the official United Airlines website. Besides, there’s a popup now that literally reads, “This is not the website of United Airlines.”
And yet, in fairness to United, the wording of some of the complaints on the site make it seem like maybe, just maybe, some of the people visiting unTIed.com might actually think they’ve reached unITed.com, largely because they’re addressed to “you,” which seems to mean United itself.
Case in point, from June 1:
“I am too shocked to type too much. I just want to know what is the solution when your employee is racist, calls me [expletive]…”
Or, from June 2:
“1. Your recent NY area hub change was a disaster for our needs to fly from LAX to Eastcoast (non-stop). 2. But, what really is maddening I compelled to voice out is your further change…”
I’m a “recovering lawyer,” but I still remember that if you want to preserve a trademark, you have to show that you’re actively defending it. Sometimes that means court.
So if United looked at some of these complaints (like the examples above) and thought, you know, some of these people really are confusing UnTIed with UnITed, they might have had no choice but to sue.
The complaints and the domain
Of course, 32,000 complaints are an awful lot of complaints, regardless of whether the site stays live or whether the airline’s trademarks were infringed. And we’re still left with Cooperstock, who has apparently self-financed the legal fight, in a one-man battle against the airline the world now loves to hate.
Maybe this is the end? Having bought and sold a few domains over the years, I have to imagine that untied.com itself, Cooperstock’s one-word, six-letter domain with more than 20 years of site traffic, might be valuable. So I asked him if he’d consider selling.
No dice, he said in an email. “United is seeking to gain possession of the domain so that they can make it disappear. I don’t want to see that happen.”