Nautical Solutions Marketing Inc. had a clever strategy for making money off the used-boat trade.
The St. Petersburg company's Internet search robot would automatically sift through 15 to 20 free Web sites for used-boat listings and then post them on its own site, YachtBroker.com. Hundreds of brokers and dealers supposedly paid $200 a month to search through its massive database, which also included listings YachtBroker obtained directly.
But when competitor YachtWorld.com of Lake Forest, Ill., publicly accused it of copyright theft in 2002, Nautical filed suit in U.S. District Court in Tampa, claiming defamation.
It could be a bellwether case for dozens of Internet companies that aggregate data, such as real estate and job listings, from multiple Web sites as a service to users.
"Take away search engines," said G. Donovan Conwell Jr., an attorney with Fowler White Boggs Banker in Tampa who is representing YachtBroker, "and you don't have a usable Internet."
The case's defamation question has already been resolved. Last month, a Tampa jury awarded Nautical $300,000, including $50,000 in punitive damages. It did so after the company accused YachtWorld and its parent, Boats.com, of interfering in its broker relationships. YachtWorld allegedly told brokers that YachtBroker had trespassed on its Web site and threatened some brokers with delisting if they continued to do business with YachtBroker.
Steve Schwarz, president of sales at Nautical, said the comments cost YachtBroker nearly all its customers and represented a deliberate attempt by an industry leader to unfairly stifle competition.
"The sales impact was devastating," he said. "We're down to a handful of brokers from 565." He said Nautical has survived by delegating listings to some of its other marine Web sites, including Usedboats.com.
Still unresolved is how Judge Steven Merryday will rule on whether YachtBroker's activities amounted to a violation of YachtWorld copyrights, a decision likely to focus on ownership of the boat-listing data. YachtWorld's lawyers argued that the listing data it posts is its own property. Conwell, YachtBroker's attorney, said listing data is the property of the listing broker.
Schwarz said YachtWorld should be grateful for the free referrals allegedly provided by YachtBroker. He said buyers who want more information about a particular listing on YachtBroker click on a link that takes them to the original Web site, where they can get in touch with the listing broker.
Boats.com spokesman James Nolan declined comment, citing the pending ruling from Merryday.
But in court filings, the company said YachtBroker's system actually cheated YachtWorld brokers out of their commissions by cutting them out of the sales process.
It also expressed disdain for YachtBroker's business plan.
"Rather than build its own database and compete with Boats on its own merit," YachtWorld wrote, "Nautical set out to and in fact competes with Boats by pirating or wrongfully misappropriating material from Boats' Web site."
_ Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at baranciksptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.