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Comparison shopping sites in copycat lawsuit

Priceman, a relative newcomer to the comparison shopping business, lifted verbatim passages and services from a competing Web site, a federal lawsuit filed this week alleges.

    Priceman, a relative newcomer to the comparison shopping business, lifted verbatim passages and services from a competing Web site, a federal lawsuit filed this week alleges.

    The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Jose, California, accuses Priceman of passing off text and services offered by a competing Web site as its own.

    A representative of Houston, Texas-based Priceman denied the charges, leveled by mySimon.com, the No. 1 independent comparison site. Comparison shopping services allow users to find the lowest prices on a variety of products and services.

    The complaint accuses Priceman of "intentional and willful copying" of content on mySimon's site and catalogs 10 separate passages on both services that are nearly identical. The suit also accuses Priceman--which bills itself as "Earth's biggest shopping comparison engine"--of simply sending inquiries it receives to mySimon, contrary to claims that it searches a whole list of price engines to retrieve the best deal.

    The case is the latest reminder of just how easy it is for online companies to crop up and challenge a market leader, sometimes by tactics that are challenged in court. Last month, for instance, Amazon.com sued a copycat service in Greece after it billed itself as "Greece's Biggest Bookstore" under the address Amazon.gr.

    According to the complaint, "After defendants receive the search results from mySimon, they display the retrieved product, price, and merchant information to the user of the Priceman Web page as if Priceman--not mySimon--performed the search.

    "Priceman's Web site displays this product, price, and merchant information without any reference to the fact that mySimon's services and computer were actually used to perform the search and retrieve the information," it continues.

    A Priceman representative said there was no difference between services offered by his site and those offered by MetaCrawler and other so-called meta search engines. Such sites plug a user's query into a dozen or more search engines to provide a more exhaustive search than any one service could provide.

    "You haven't seen Yahoo sue a [meta engine] for searching them, so we really don't understand why [mySimon] has done that," said James, a 25-year-old Web developer who said he is one of eight people who launched the site. He declined to give his last name.

    James added that the company was trying to contact the outside graphics company that had helped design the Priceman site to investigate the claims it had lifted verbatim passages found on mySimon.com.

    Not all knockoffs are illegal. In addition to dozens of meta search engines on the Net, there are also plenty of legitimate sites that closely mimic the services offered by a market leader, as witnessed by the recent proliferation of auction sites. The difference, says Ken Wilson, the attorney who filed suit on behalf of mySimon, is when a company tries to pass off a rival's work as its own.

    "This is not a case where one company is searching a number of other search engines with their consent," said Wilson, an attorney at Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati. "It's a situation where a competitor is copying the content of a site and is utilizing the results from the search engine without attribution and without consent. It's free-riding and siphoning traffic off of mySimon's site."