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If a company publishes false statements claiming that it was the first to achieve some notable technological milestone, or that it currently provides the most of some measurable service, can that count as libel against the company which truly achieved that or holds that record?

Because claiming to be the first seems to include saying that the other company was not the first, so is that libel if that's false?

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    Your question title is somewhat misleading, not hinting at the fact that it's making a claim comparing itself to all other companies. The subject of the sentence is the company, but the actual claim it makes involves everything worldwide. Perhaps "Is it libel if a company falsely claims to be the first to achieve something?" (Or are you really wanting to include current-moment claims like "most", according to some metric that can be potentially be slanted?) Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 1:55
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    Isn't that a different category, false advertisement? Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 22:23
  • This should have a USA tag I guess?
    – Simd
    Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 7:25

4 Answers 4

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Typical in any of the several

No, this fails to meet two of the core elements of libel. The statement must be

  • Adverse (fails)
  • Stated by one party
  • To a second party
  • About a third party (fails)

The case you're thinking of, where a company brags excessively about their company or products, are covered by a variety of securities and trade laws, such as false advertising. Many of these are applicable in the Federal domain, i.e. are Federal rather than state laws.

Edit: Now I see you've changed the question a bit to claiming to be first. Yes, the injured party can sue for that, but they are more claiming false advertising than libel. Accusing someone of not being first-to-market is not a particularly powerful or damning claim. Oreo didn't invent the sandwich cookie nor did Apple invent the computer. So such a claim is really a lot more about the publicity than actual, provable damages; so the controversy is more likely to be aired outside the court system, or in the courts but mainly for the publicity. (an example of the latter being the "Taco Tuesday" trademark-busting action; IIRC Taco Bell even paid the other party's legal fees, despite prevailing.)

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    Could it be considered "about a third party" by implication? Otherwise, it would seem you could avoid libel by careful negation of certain statements. You couldn't say "Pepsi will give you worms", but you could say "Coca-Cola is the only cola that won't give you worms"? Can you can get around libel by avoiding naming the third party specifically but referring to them in a oblique but fairly unambiguous manner? Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 13:33
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    Relevant XKCD: xkcd.com/641
    – Grooke
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 14:24
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    @NuclearHoagie That might be libel but it would be the judgment of a judge or jury on the facts. Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 17:01
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    @NuclearHoagie Saying "X is the only one who doesn't Y" is effectively saying "Everyone except X does Y". So if it's libel, there would be a whole bunch of victims would might press charges. You're much better off saying "Coca-Cola doesn't give you worms" (a la the XKCD) and leaving anything about the others unsaid -- now you have plausible deniability.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 23:41
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    With regard to the last paragraph, there's a concept called 'puffery' and the FTC which allows such misrepresentations or 'exaggerations' up to a point.
    – JimmyJames
    Commented Jul 28, 2023 at 15:15
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In contrast to Trish's answer (I don't know what jurisdiction that applies in), the law in Canada leaves open the possibility that the circumstance you describe could make out a successful defamation claim.

The elements of defamation are (Grant v. Torstar Corp., 2009 SCC 61, para. 28):

(1) that the impugned words were defamatory, in the sense that they would tend to lower the plaintiff’s reputation in the eyes of a reasonable person; (2) that the words in fact referred to the plaintiff; and (3) that the words were published, meaning that they were communicated to at least one person other than the plaintiff.

But, whether the impugned words were defamatory and whether the words in fact referred to the plaintiff can only be determined in context by a finder of fact. Whether a person to which the statement was published would reasonably understand the statement to be a defamatory statement about another company is judged based on the full context of the statement. Defamation need not be literal; it can be inferential or based on inuendo.

Where a claim is based on the inferential meaning of words, the question is one of impression: what would the ordinary person infer from the words in the context in which they were used? Both literal and inferential defamatory meaning reside within the words, as part of their natural and ordinary meaning. In contrast, where legal innuendo is pleaded the impugned words take on defamatory meaning from outside circumstances beyond general knowledge, but known to the recipient.

Weaver v. Corcoran, 2017 BCCA 160 at para 72

See also R.E. Brown, The Law of Defamation in Canada, 2nd ed. (1999), quoted in S.G. v. J.C. (2001), 56 O.R. (3d) 215:

Therefore, in order to recover, the plaintiff must plead and prove that he or she is the one to whom the defamatory statement refers, that is, it must be shown to have been published 'of and concerning' the plaintiff. The defamatory publication 'must refer to some ascertained or ascertainable person, and that person must be the plaintiff.' It must refer to or concern him personally. The test in every case is whether the ordinary sensible person to whom the words were published would understand them as referring to the plaintiff.

It is not necessary that the plaintiff be identified by his or her proper name, or even mentioned at all, if it is otherwise shown that the words would be reasonably understood to refer to the plaintiff. He or she may be referred to in the guise of some fictional or historical character or by a play on words. It may be clear from other evidence that he was the one alluded to, but he must satisfy the court in that regard. This may be done by introducing evidence, apart from the publication, connecting the plaintiff with the defamatory publication. The question in such a case is whether or not the words used are such as to lead an ordinary sensible person, or reasonable persons, who pay reasonable attention to the contents of the communication, to understand that it was the plaintiff to whom the defendant referred.

The test of whether words that do not specifically name the plaintiff refer to him or not is this: Are they such as reasonably in the circumstances would lead persons acquainted with the plaintiff to believe that he was the person referred to? That does not assume that those persons who read the words know all the circumstances or all the relevant facts. But although the plaintiff is not named in words, he may, nevertheless, be described so as to be recognized; and whether that description takes the form of a word-picture of an individual or the form of a reference to a class of persons of which he is or is believed to be a member, or any other form, if in the circumstances the description is such that a person hearing or reading the alleged libel would reasonably believe that the plaintiff was referred to, that is a sufficient reference to him.

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    If I call myself "the best pizzeria in [city]", that's not libel. Doesn't calling myself "the first to do [thing]" fall under the same category? What's the difference?
    – Flater
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 1:17
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    @Flater "Best" is subjective, "first to do" is generally not.
    – aroth
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 1:56
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No in the

Libel is written defamation, its sibling is slander. That is not simply stating something wrong, libel is stating something that is disparaging a different person in the eye of the public and which does not have the defense of truth or being an opinion.

In general, the test if something is Defamation has four factors, which were outlined above:

  1. a false statement purporting to be fact [about a second person];

  2. publication or communication of that statement to a third person;

  3. fault amounting to at least negligence; and

  4. damages, or some harm caused to the reputation of the person or entity who is the subject of the statement.

If Alice says "Bob won a medal", that would not be disparaging about Bob, as that is not causing harm to Bob's reputation.

If Alice says "I won a medal" that is not a statement about a different person than yourself.

If Alice says "I won a medal, Bob didn't", now that could be causing harm to the reputation of Bob - if the statement is patently wrong and Alice knows or should have known the truth.

Where the line is between the second and third statement is very much dependent on the exact state law: if implication can qualify is generally in statutes.

Different laws apply to ads

If anything, claiming that your company achieved something and if that claim is more than puffery, then the statement might be false or misleading advertisement - which are usually violations of state law.

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    it's not a statement about Bob.
    – Trish
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 10:46
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    If she said "Bob didn't win the medal, I did", that would be different.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 11:38
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    It really doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of salami between the two statements.
    – Sneftel
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 21:15
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    @Sneftel: The key may be in changing the indefinite to definite article. "Alice won a medal" imparts no information about whether Bob also won a medal. "Alice won the (only) medal." imparts information about Bob even without naming him.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 22:06
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    @Sneftel: Safe? No. A court could find either way.
    – Ben Voigt
    Commented Jul 27, 2023 at 14:19
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An interesting case of something like this is an ongoing (as of 2023) lawsuit by Nona Gaprindashvili, against Netflix, for claiming in its show The Queen’s Gambit that its main character is making history in an episode set in 1968 because, “There's Nona Gaprindashvili, but she's the female world champion and has never faced men.”

in fact, Gaprindashvili had played against nearly 60 men by the time the episode is set. In its early filings, Netflix defended itself by saying the show was a work of fiction set in an alternative timeline. This alleges defamation, not fraud. That is, it alleges that viewers will believe the show’s historically-inaccurate claims denigrating Gaprindashvili’s accomplishments, not that the audience will think the show is a documentary about a real person.

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