Beverly Stayart of Elkhorn, Wisc. describes herself as ‘a respected scholar of genealogy and a “positive and wholesome” leader in the animal rights movement’; she also maintains that she is the only Beverly (or Bev) Stayart out there on the interweb, and that her name carries ‘significant commercial value’. Imagine her dismay when, after some ego-surfing on Google, she discovered that if you type her name in the search box the autofill function (for no apparent reason, but presumably partly based on previous users’ searches) adds the word ‘levitra’ and suggests a whole bunch of sites related to male impotence. Stayart sued Google, claiming it had violated her privacy rights under state law by using her name without permission to generate sales revenue from sponsored links and advertising by the manufacturers of Levitra, Cialis and Viagra.
The courts of Wisconsin have dismissed Stayart’s repeated misappropriation claims, most recently the US appeals court for the 7th Circuit in Stayart v Google Inc (6 March 2013). While Wisconsin common law and legislation recognise a right of privacy, this right has limits. It cannot hinder freedom of communication, including on matters of legitimate public interest. Ironically, Stayart has effectively made the search term ‘bev stayart levitra’ a matter of public interest through her litigation not only against Google but also Yahoo! Google’s profit motive did not undermine its reliance on the public interest exception, and the use of Stayart’s name was in any event incidental to the commercial links (which seem to have been triggered by the word ‘levitra’ rather than the plaintiff’s name).