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Midair on the Internet: The American Airlines Boycott


by Glen Emerson Morris
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"Midair" is one of the most troubling words an air traffic controller can hear over the radio. Midair signifies that a midair collision between two planes has happened, and the phrase is deliberately terse because those who use it frequently have limited time left to say anything at all. In most cases, the results of midair collisions are disastrous to both aircraft.

In late July of 1999, a collision happened on the Internet between American Airlines and an Internet-based community of flight simulator enthusiasts over the posting of files with the American Airlines logo. Several flight sim related Websites, including www.flightsim.com, one of the Net's largest, received cease and desist notices from American Airlines legal representatives, threatening legal action if the Websites didn't immediately remove all files with the airline's logo. Most Websites complied, but flight simulator hobbyists immediately launched a boycott of AA, and an Anti-American Airlines Website soon appeared.

The boycott seems to have caught American Airlines senior management by surprise, which is reasonable, since they probably didn't make any of the decisions that set it off.

American Airlines, like many large companies, uses a licensing agency to handle the many requests it receives for authorized use if its logo. Recently, one of these requests, made by software publisher Papa Tango, asked for exclusive rights to market add-on aircraft for Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 using the AA logo. The agency granted the request, for a fee, without thinking much about it. After all, it was just a software game, wasn't it?

Well, not exactly. For those not familiar, Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 is a software program designed to simulate flying a variety airplanes very realistically. It's one of the oldest software titles in existence, dating from the days of the Apple II, and it's sold millions of copies to affluent adults who enjoy flying, and sometimes are real pilots. For practical purposes, FS 98 is a hobby, not a game.

MS Flight Simulator 98 is something like a digital train set, in that it offers the ability to expand the basic layout with additional planes, airports, and geographical areas, just as one might add additional train cars, track, and buildings to a basic train set. Microsoft had three options for expanding the basic FS 98 package; they could produce all of the additional add-on planes and scenery themselves, license the development of add-on components to third party developers for a percentage, or let anyone, including game fans, create add-on planes and scenery.

Microsoft opted for an "open architecture," and published the information needed to make add-ons for FS 98 on its Website. It was a sound strategy, and a shrewd one. It pitted hobbyists against commercial developers, since either could make add-ons for FS 98, and the hotter the competition got the more attractive FS 98 became to those who hadn't bought it yet. Microsoft correctly perceived that all of the full page ads for third party FS 98 add-ons appearing in game magazines, were also adds for FS 98.

Not surprisingly, Microsoft's marketing strategy for FS 98 proved successful. Today, there are hundreds of commercial add-on products available for it, covering everything from photo realistic scenery packages to airplanes by the hundreds. In addition, FS 98 users themselves have created thousands of high quality airplanes, airports, sceneries, and utilities, and posted them on Websites, for free downloading.

One of the biggest categories of freeware files on www.flightsim.com is commercial airliners. Since FS 98 sells in nearly every country in the world, and FS 98 hobbyists tend to fly aircraft with local and personal significance, aircraft from most of the world's airlines are available. Just scanning the new files section is a lesson in foreign airlines you never heard of, and therein lies the problem. All the foreign airline are still there.

The Microsoft FS 98 strategy not only pitted commercial developers against hobbyists, it also pitted developers against the airlines. The more successful commercial software developers are in restricting the appearance of an airline's logo on the Internet (and the more money they make,) the less free advertising the airlines get.

The appearance of an airline's logo on a Website like flightsim.com is basically free advertising, conveniently delivered to a prime target market. The value of this advertising wasn't taken into consideration when the licensing agency for AA signed the exclusive deal with Papa Tango. The cost the boycott it would cause evidently wasn't considered either.

American Airline's executives have had time to consider both, and now seem in a damage control mode. The problem is that the rights have already been signed away, and Papa Tango is well aware it can now force AA to use it's hefty legal resources to systematically drive competing AA related freeware from the Internet. (AA employs a law firm to do nothing but prosecute logo violations at the request of the licensing agency.) Under current US law, a company that doesn't defend its logo loses all rights to it.

Some countries have a trademark system that doesn't force trademark owners to prosecute non-commercial use of their trademarks. It might be time to consider that kind of law in this country. Theoretically, nearly any appearance of a US registered logo on the Internet without permission is an infringement, and requires the logo owner to prosecute or risk losing their logo. If the current law is strictly enforced, and it would only take one case to set the precedent, consumers wouldn't be able to post photographs of anything but landscapes on the Net. Almost all manufactured items have a logo on them, and only nature is devoid of manufactured objects.

It would be more reasonable to allow non-commercial use of corporate logos as a matter of course. After all, if you take a photo of your kid in their tree house while an American Airlines jet is flying by, should you really be prohibited from posting that photo on the Internet? For that matter, should American businesses be forced to shoot down a nearly unlimited source of free advertising, leaving it for foreign competition?

American Airlines may have shot itself in the foot with this one, but it was someone else who painted bullseyes on both shoes and ordered it to shoot.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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