The Canadian arm of Tupperware Corp., a business built on cheery sales parties at which housewives learned to burp air out of plastic food storage boxes, is going to court today to try to shut down a website it says falsely accuses it of wanting to force its area distributors out of business, disband its party sales force and sell mainly through stores.
Tupperware Canada Inc., based in Markham, Ont., is particularly irate to see its differences with former distributors described as TupperWars, a term it says unlawfully parodies and devalues its trademark. Apart from the defamation motion, the company is suing five Ontario and New Brunswick women (and in some cases their business-partner husbands) for hundreds of thousands of dollars in debts they allegedly left behind when they lost their distributorships.
In documents filed in Ontario Superior Court, it acknowledges "a decline in its business in the last few years" because of "competition for people's time" and shifting consumer tastes, but it disclaims any plan to scrap the party sales method in Canada, as was done last year in Britain.
It will seek a hearing in Toronto this morning to ask a judge for an interim injunction against cyber-critic Les Stewart, a former lawn-service franchisee who has campaigned against what he describes as corporate abuse of small-business operators.
Mr. Stewart, 45, is founder and president of Canadian Alliance of Franchise Operators Inc., which he runs from his home near Barrie, Ont., while offering his services as a franchising expert through its website, www.cafo.net
. The site has an extensive Tupperware section.
In court filings, the company demands that it "be immediately inactivated and access to it by the public or others be restrained, prohibited, prevented and/or precluded until such time as all references to Tupperware, its management, business, operations and trademark are removed." It also seeks an order barring CAFO and Mr. Stewart from "disseminating or distributing, in any manner whatsoever, any statements or communications concerning Tupperware, its associated and affiliated companies, and its business and operations."
The case may become a contest between libel and trademark laws and the right to free speech in commercial disputes, but Mr. Stewart says he has yielded temporarily by limiting access to the site while he seeks an adjournment to gain time to prepare a legal counterattack.
Since late last week, the Tupperware section has been protected by a password known only to ex-distributors engaged in disputes with the company and "a few people" in the news media, he said. "We're asking for an adjournment because we've given them [Tupperware] what they wanted, virtually."
It is not clear this will appease the company, which asserts in a court filing that "CAFO and Stewart have communicated with Tupperware distributors in Canada as well as distributors in the United States directing them to the CAFO/Stewart website, ensuring wide dissemination of the false and defamatory statements made therein."
In an affidavit sworn on Thursday, Tupperware Canada managing director Regina White said that although the Tupperware system has worked for 58 years, her experience as an executive and former salesperson "is that the sales force is fragile and susceptible to suggestions, statements and comments such as those contained in the CAFO and Stewart website, which is Internet-based and widely disseminated."
Ms. White, a former regional vice-president of the Florida-based parent company, did not respond to messages left at her Markham office last week, but the company issued a statement through a New York publicist saying it was regretfully suing the five former Canadian distributors after failing to reach a deal with them on alleged debts that included unpaid bills for merchandise. It remains open to "an amicable resolution," it said.
Mr. Stewart described the women as victims of unfair pricing policies and other abuses. "The claims would bankrupt all five of them."