Play on Words

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Is Playmate of the Year a trademark or a job description? Well, both, and in the case of Terri Welles, it's a question for the courts, with repercussions that will be felt all over the Internet. Welles was the PMOY in 1981, something you quickly learn when you go to her web site, which uses a "PMOY '81" logo as wallpaper. Welles launched the site -- where she displays the attributes that got her in the centerfold to begin with -- about a year ago, and has parlayed it into a $2,500-a-month operation. And there's the rub: Playboy is very protective of its properties, and alleges that Welles' use of terms such as Playmate and Playboy constitute trademark violation. Nonsense, say Welles and her lawyers -- they're simply factual descriptions of her accomplishments. Less obvious -- invisible, in fact -- is her site's use of metatags, encoded words that search engines match up with users' requests. In this case, when someone searches for "Playmate," Welles' page will turn up eventually, and that's trademark infringement too, says Playboy. This is probably the strongest part of the magazine's suit; less likely is the prospect that Welles will be prevented from referring to her crowning achievement.