|Ford Cracks Down on Use Of Volvo Copyright on Web
By ALMAR LATOUR and SCOTT MILLER
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
JAERNA, Sweden -- When Hans Rekestad set out to sell old Volvos and spare parts on the Internet, he never dreamed he would descend into a war with Ford Motor Co. that would involve a $100,000 lawsuit, allegations of "cyber-squatting" and a national hubbub that would bring television crews swarming to his weathered wooden farm house.
But he did.
Never mind that Mr. Rekestad, a former rally-race driver, has grease under his fingernails, no employees and just a tiny basement office with a concrete floor and no heating. Nor that he'd rather be fixing up a 1951 Volvo 444 or reading a Guenther Grass novel than talking to lawyers about trademarks and Internet domain names. Ford, which owns Volvo Cars, decided last spring that Mr. Rekestad was a dangerous pirate. And pirates, Ford said, must be stopped.
What ensued offers a window on Ford's love-hate relationship with the Internet. Like other big auto makers, Ford loves the idea of using the Net for buying components, advertising and fostering a sense of community among customers. But it is less happy with how the Internet has weakened its ability to control its intellectual property. Witness Ford's legal battle with Web publisher Robert Lane, who posted internal Ford documents on his site, blueovalnews.com (http://www.blueovalnews.com/).
So Ford felt impelled to go after Mr. Rekestad's Web site, ClassicVolvo.com (http://www.classicvolvo.com/). "Ford feels it has the legal right to protect its brand equity," says a Ford spokeswoman, Kristen Kinley. "Ford has invested billions of dollars over the last 100 years to develop its reputation and its trademarks."
Mr. Rekestad, 48, never thought twice about trademarks until one muggy day in late May, when a fat envelope from Detroit landed in his mailbox. Inside was a thick letter from a law firm employed by Ford, which said that the name of Mr. Rekestad's Web site violated U.S. antipiracy law by using the Volvo brand name without Ford's permission. The 39-page document ordered him to stop using the Web address, claimed $100,000 in damages, and noted that Ford had filed suit against him in a district court for eastern Michigan. The pages included a contract under which Mr. Rekestad could waive the law firm's need to send official legal documentation to notify him of the lawsuit. The lawyers threw in a self-addressed envelope and some U.S. postage stamps for good measure.
Mr. Rekestad was perplexed, and not just because the stamps were worthless in Sweden. As he saw it, his Web site offered Volvo free advertising and goodwill. "Ford should really send us a check, not a lawsuit," he fumed on ClassicVolvo.com. Besides, he asked, what was he supposed to call his business? ClassicVolov? ClassicCarsFromSwedenNotSaab.com?
Even Volvo Cars was baffled. "Rekestad is our friend," said Ingmar Hesslefors, a spokesman for Volvo Cars in Sweden. "What Ford did is shooting down sparrows with ballistic missiles."
But the bird, it turns out, had some weapons of his own. Since that day in May, Mr. Rekestad has bombarded Ford and Volvo officials with e-mails, explaining that what he does for Volvo is good. He has posted a crossed-out Ford logo on his site. He has even purchased, for $75, an alternative site, ClassicVolvo.nu, which could force Ford to sue him all over again.
His next move: If Ford proceeds with the lawsuit, he plans to collect donations and petition signatures from agitated Swedes, for whom Volvo remains a symbol of national pride. He won't rule out an ad campaign. Support for his struggle is strong: Swedish newspapers have backed him in editorials; encouraging e-mails have doubled the traffic on his site since May to 550 visits a day. One e-mail even mimicked the song of Janis Joplin fame: "Oh Lord, don't you ever buy me a Ford."
On a recent afternoon, Mr. Rekestad climbs into a noisy 1973 Volvo 142 that he has been repairing. It needs a test drive, but his mind is clearly elsewhere. "Ford is trying to close down my business," he says, slamming his hands on the steering wheel. "But do they realize they are simultaneously killing the mystic quality of Volvo that made the car a success? I am willing to wage a guerrilla war to defend the spirit of Volvo against corporate lawyers in America."
Mr. Rekestad may be no match for Ford. But he's no ordinary Volvo enthusiast, either. In fact, he's something of a fanatic.
Mr. Rekestad bought his first Volvo, a second-hand 1951 PV 444 with no brakes, for roughly 100 kronor (12 euros) when he was 12. Though the car's body was rusty, its engine loud and its steering wheel almost inoperable, this was love at first sight. The attraction? It reminded him of the harvesters he rode on his father's farm. "Volvo engines are simple, like tractors," he says. "You can rely on them. You can understand them. They never fail you."
An aspiring rally racer, he hurtled the junker full throttle through the countryside until it conked out three months later. Then he dismantled it piece by piece, trying to learn how it worked. But when he tried to reassemble it, he couldn't remember where all the parts went. For months, the car and components littered the ground outside his parent's house.
Three years later, he spent 300 kronor on a second Volvo 444, from 1957. But this time around, he also got hold of an official Volvo repair manual and pored over it day and night. "The book," he says, "was my Obi-Wan Kenobi."
After he graduated from high school, Mr. Rekestad started repairing other people's Volvos to earn some money for a road trip through Europe. And so it was, a year later, that he set out on his two-year journey in a 1958 Volvo 445 station wagon with a trunk full of tools and spare parts. He made it all the way to Greece. By then, the Volvo was riddled with rust holes and the gearbox was hopelessly clogged with dirt. Most people would have left the car for dead, but not Mr. Rekestad. He found a Greek farmer who could use the kaput gearbox as weight for a scale and swapped it for some tools and figs. After two weeks of fiddling, Mr. Rekestad managed to bolt in a spare gearbox he had brought along. He was on his way home.
Back in Sweden, Mr. Rekestad went into the spare-parts business. He bought up junk Volvos, cannibalized them and sold off the pieces. He also started a Volvo newsletter, through which he sold repaired classic Volvos and packets of Volvo parts. During the day, he would fix cars in his garage, interrupting his work now and then to read his beloved Guenther Grass. In the evening, his wife and six children would help him keep up with his growing correspondence, licking stamps and sealing envelopes. Slowly but surely, Mr. Rekestad gained a solid reputation among Volvo fans in Sweden and beyond.
Then, in 1996, Mr. Rekestad learned about the Internet, which sparked ambitions he never knew he had. He could now publish his newsletter on the Web, allowing him to buy and sell cars and parts by e-mail. His ClassicVolvo.com was an instant success, receiving more than 250 visits a day, far more than the 30 phone calls a day he could handle before. One day, he dreamed, venture capitalists would invest money into his Web site and make it a global portal for all things related to Volvo classics, cars that are older than 25 years old. Fishing for cash to expand, he offered to sell to anyone his domain name for $250,0000 last year. "I wanted to get cash to develop the site," he says. "I didn't really know how to go about it."
Unfortunately for Mr. Rekestad, the offer to sell the domain name also drew the attention of the holding company that controls the Volvo trademark, which is owned 50% by Ford Motor Co. and 50% by truck maker AB Volvo. The holding company contacted Ford's legal department, and the 39-page letter to Mr. Rekestad followed. "It says, 'To whom it may concern, a lawsuit has commenced against you,' " reads Mr. Rekestad, struggling with the American legalese. "It's all I ever got from Ford. It's a shame. Had they come forward in a more civilized way, we could have discussed the matter."
Ford says the action was warranted. Among other things, says Ms. Kinley, the spokeswoman, the auto maker worries that visitors to Mr. Rekestad's site could think it has the full backing of Volvo and Ford. That assumption could create confusion and possibly anger potential customers. In at least one case, she explains, a Web site based on another company's name contained pornographic material.
Ford is waiting for a district court judge in Michigan to set a hearing date for its case against ClassicVolvo.com. But whatever the outcome, Mr. Rekestad intends to press ahead. He has already bought new Volvo-related domain names, he says, including ClassicVolvo.ny. "It will take them years to shut me down," he says. "I will not give up just like that."
Write to Almar Latour at email@example.com and Scott Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org