Hotel chains sue Gator over unwanted pop-up ads

The Six Continents Hotels Inc. and Inter-Continental Hotels Corp. chains have pulled up their welcome mats and are hauling an unwanted visitor into court, charging that online marketing company The Gator Corp. is illegally adding its pop-up ads to the hotel’s Web sites and confusing customers.

In a 51-page lawsuit filed Nov. 12 in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Georgia, the hotel chains allege that Redwood City, Calif.-based Gator is causing its pop-up advertisements to appear when hotel customers try to use the Web sites to make reservations and get information.

By having the pop-up ads appear atop the hotel Web sites, Gator is infringing on the trademarks of the hotels and engaging in deceptive trade practices, according to the lawsuit.

A spokesperson for Gator couldn’t be reached for comment.

The case follows a court case earlier this year in which seven major news organizations asked a U.S. District Court judge in Virginia to stop Gator from placing its pop-up ads on their Web sites while the matter is before the court.

Eric Pearson, vice-president of e-commerce for Six Continents at the company’s U.S. offices in Atlanta, said the suit was filed to try to end “pop-up ads that we don’t want and that [incorrectly] imply endorsement” by the hotels. “It’s just obviously something we think we want to protect,” he said.

The problem, Pearson said, is that the pop-up ads can confuse customers into making reservations with third-parties and then cause problems when they go to check-in and their accommodations aren’t in the hotel chain’s records. “We want customers to have confidence when using the sites that their rooms will be there,” Pearson said.

The lawsuit alleges that the Gator pop-up ads block content on the hotel chain’s Web sites, and instead promote Gator client companies that directly compete with London-based hotel Six Continents PLC and its Six Continents and Inter-Continental divisions.

Visitors receive the pop-up ads through Gator’s “spyware” software called “OfferCompanion” that’s downloaded and installed on the user’s computer, according to the lawsuit. The software allegedly is automatically launched when a PC user opens a Web browser to surf the Internet, the hotels charge.

“Gator’s pop-up advertising scheme is designed to lure and divert Internet users from the Web sites they intend to visit, to the Web sites owned by Gator’s advertising clients,” the lawsuit states.

The OfferCompanion software is often included as a “trojan horse” with other software offered for free to computer users, according to the lawsuit, making users unaware that they have installed the spyware application.

The 14-count lawsuit alleges that Gator has infringed on the hotel company’s registered trademarks and copyrights, violates Georgia’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act and unjustly enriches Gator by using deceptive means.

The suit asks the court to stop Gator from continuing the pop-up ads on its Web sites and to pay unspecified monetary damages to the plaintiffs, as well as begin a corrective ad campaign to “dispel the effects of Gator’s wrongful conduct and confusing and misleading advertising.”