Similarities between the look and content of IPC’s new “Cumputeractive” magazine and VNU’s “Web User” were too close for comfort for VNU who sued.
Topic: Passing off
Who: IPC and VNU
When: May 2001
Weeks before the trial date, magazine publishers IPC and VNU settled their differences over the allegedly similar look and content of magazines Computeractive (VNU) and Web User (IPC). The similarities may not have been entirely unconnected with the fact that the editor who handled the launch of Web User had previously handled Computeractive’s launch. Computeractive had recently enjoyed the third highest sales growth of any UK news stand title, growing in 12 months from 223,577 to a socking 325,836. So VNU was not going to sit idly by when IPC launched Web User, a direct competitor in the "ordinary people owning computers/no jargon" category". They certainly did more than not sit idly by when they saw Web User’s cover. Just like Computeractive, there was a sloping red masthead, with the first part of the title ("Computer") in black and the second half ("active") in white. Some content features such as "workshops" were also allegedly confusingly similar, and IPC’s Web User launch campaign using the phrase "Rip-offs rumbled" was probably the last straw.
VNU launched a passing off action and had amassed a number of witnesses who would give evidence that they believed Web User was a sister magazine to Computeractive. As part of the out of court settlement IPC agreed not to use a diagonal red masthead or present the title on the cover in the black and white lettering style used by Computeractive.
Why this matters:
This is not the first time that publishers have clashed over similar magazine covers, but there are not many UK reported cases in which, as here, the titles have been quite different. If the case had gone to trial, VNU would in this writer’s view have had an uphill task persuading a Chancery Judge that the similar "look" of the covers and similarities between a few features inside were sufficient to amount to a passing off. Effectively VNU would have had to demonstrate that a diagonal red masthead and half black/half white presentations of the magazine title had become distinctive of VNU titles, and in particular Computeractive. Then they would have to show that Web User's use of similar features amounted to a misrepresentation and that this was likely to cause VNU significant financial damage. One key question at trial might have been the extent if any to which any consumer of publications like this cares who publishes a magazine or who it might be associated with, so long as it passes the "quick flick" test on the rack in the newsagents. On balance, however, given the history, both sides were probably sensible to settle before a messy and costly trial.