All Things Considered, June 20, 2007 · How does it feel to have the same name as a company that's wildly popular with millions of people? Ask Ralph Girkins of UTube. That's UTube, as in Universal Tube—the heavy equipment refurbishing company outside of Toledo, Ohio. Not the Internet rage YouTube—the Web site millions of people log into every day to watch and post home videos.
Girkins walks through a giant warehouse that houses UTube. Welders work on 40-foot-long pipe-making machines. They look sort of like giant, green tractor engines.
"All the machines—everything we're doing here is machines that make tube and pipe," Girkins says. "This is the original UTube."
Going Down the Wrong Tube
This UTube, a small company with just 15 employees, has had its Web site, utube.com, since 1996. But over the past year, as the video site got popular, many Web-surfers trying to go to YouTube typed in the wrong address and wound up on this company's Web site, which started getting a lot more hits.
"It slowly built," Girkins says. "We thought we were doing a great marketing job. But they weren't looking for us."
Before YouTube, Girkins says, there were about 1,000 real customers visiting utube.com each month. Today, he says, there are about 150,000 people a day typing "u tube" the wrong way, and winding up on his site.
"We couldn't keep our server up. That's what happened," he says.
The Cost of Unexpected Visitors
You might think that's not such a big deal. This company is rebuilding industrial machinery. It's not exactly an Internet outfit. But Girkins says that 75 percent of his sales come in over the Web site. And with each one of these large tube-making machines costing a few hundred thousand dollars, he just can't have his Web site going down. And then there's the nuisance factor. Some confused people call the phone number on his company's Web site.
Universal Tube has since filed a lawsuit against Google and its YouTube video site, seeking compensation for the time and expense the extra Web traffic is costing the business. For one thing, Girkins says, Universal Tube is now paying upwards of $1,700 a month for server space.
Visitor Hate Mail
As the lawsuit puts it, these unwanted visitors, "often fill out Plaintiff's sales request form, seeking more information in a vulgar and belligerent manner. Exhibit 1 is a message left by one visitor who asks, 'WHERE THE F*** ARE THE VIDEOS??? 1.5 BILLION DOLLARS FOR THIS PIECE OF S*** WEBSITE? GOOGLE GOT TAKEN.'"
According to UTube manager Laura Smirin, a lot of the phone calls and e-mails were very rude. "They were just nasty," Smirin says.
Girkins has hundreds of them on his computer in his office. He sits and scrolls through them: "Idiot, idiot, idiot," he reads. Some of the hate mail is about the lawsuit. Some YouTube enthusiasts seem to be worried that this equipment company might be threatening their favorite alternative video site, even though Google's YouTube is clearly the bigger company.
"We're just the little guy," Girkins says.
A judge has already dismissed some of the claims in the lawsuit. Google says the remaining claims lack merit and that it will vigorously defend itself. Some legal experts say Universal Tube might have a legitimate case. But they say such cases usually settle before trial.
Meanwhile, Girkins is trying to take advantage of the extra visitors to his company's Web site. He has ads selling ring tones and dating services to meet hot singles. Girkins says, so far, the banner ads are covering his legal fees and Web site hosting costs.