The fur's flying on three Web sites

It's animal lovers vs. Neiman Marcus

April 26, 2004|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

It's spring, when thoughts usually turn to warm-weather topics like barbecues, tank tops and colossal home runs by Barry Bonds.

But this year, at least in the online world, spring has raised a wintry matter, fur - and a flap over three other little letters: c, a, s.

Those three letters have led Neiman Marcus Group Inc., one of the country's most conspicuous high-end retailers, to try to shut down three Web sites for the Fund for Animals, a national organization founded in 1967 by former author and humanitarian Cleveland Amory.

Why Neiman Marcus? Because Silver Spring-based Fund for Animals, seeking to use parody as a weapon in its fight against fur sales, dropped two letters - "m" and "u" - from the retailer's name, and replaced them with c, a and s to create a new name for its anti-fur Web sites: NeimanCarcass.

As a result, the unhappy company has filed a complaint against the animal-rights group's Web-hosting company, Carol/Trevelyan Strategy Group, or CTSG, with the National Arbitration Forum, an agency that resolves disputes over Internet domain names.

An administrative judge will decide whether the site names -, neiman and neimancarcass .org - infringe on the lawful domain of Neiman Marcus, and must be shut down, or if they fall within the legal bounds of parody, and thus may continue.

Texas-based Neiman Marcus declined to respond to several requests by The Sun for comment. The Fund for Animals' president, Michael Markarian, was not so reticent.

"I think they are worried about public attention and criticism of the company's practices," says Markarian. "People are concerned about corporate responsibility. ... We believe a majority of the customers find the sale of fur to be socially unacceptable."

In a formal response to the complaint, Alice Hendricks, a representative of CTSG in Washington, defends the Web-site names, quoting from previous rulings. "Courts have held that `parody and satire are deserving of substantial freedom - both as entertainment and as a form of social and literary criticism,' " she said.

Hendricks could not discuss the matter, but she also says in the response, to meet the standard of parody, the domain names must "convey two simultaneous - and contradictory - messages: that it is the original, but also that it is not the original and is instead a parody."

Neiman Marcus, she says, "would have one believe that the only difference between their trademark and the domain names in question is the difference of three letters (cas). However, the difference those three letters make is quite significant (and) ... creates a whole new word in `carcass,' with a different definition, and conjures an image of the dead body of an animal.

"This is exactly the image FFA wishes to conjure up in the mind of the audience as it is opposed to the sale and wearing of fur."

Michael Laric, professor of marketing at the Robert G. Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore, says it seem inconceivable that one would mistake "NeimanCarcass" for Neiman Marcus.

"I don't think the name will be confused by anyone," he says.

Nor is Laric convinced that the Web sites, though clearly negative, will harm company sales.

Such sites usually simply "reinforce people's notions," he says.

"The negative tends to carry more weight with people who agree with you beforehand," Laric says. But "those who want to buy furs will continue buying furs."

Still, he says, Neiman Marcus has the right to defend its name and business.

The company is not the only target of the Fund for Animals. But Neiman Marcus is different from most, Markarian says, because it is both a trendsetter and because it owns and operates its own fur departments.

He acknowledges there is irony in the timing of the dispute.

"There's a lot of attention [to the fur issue] in the fall and winter, and then people tend to forget about it," he says. "But the animals are killed year-round. They are killed by gruesome methods. We really want consumers to know that this is an issue that doesn't fade away in the summer."

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