Internet

Cybersquat Thrusts

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Both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate have passed separate versions of bills outlawing "cybersquatting." According to Congress, cybersquatting occurs when a person registers as an Internet domain name a trademark or famous name to which he does not hold rights, with the intent of turning a buck.

For Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), the sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, the motivation appears to be partly personal. When Hatch looked into setting up a Web site to publicize his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, someone offered him the domain name www.senatororrinhatch.com for $45,000 (Hatch declined the offer). While the House and Senate bills cover the use of famous names, Hatch is working with the author of the House bill, Rep. James Rogan (R-Calif.), to craft a provision that would outlaw squatting on any name if it could be proved that the motive was profit.

While such legislation seeks to simplify the matter, it raises a number of questions of its own. For instance, it's not clear whether or how coincidental or accidental interference with trademarks would be punished. What, if anything, should be done with potentially–and, one assumes, pointedly–confusing domain names such as whitehouse.com, which takes surfers not to the president's Web site (that's whitehouse.gov) but to a porno site?

Then there's the issue of parody Web pages. On the Web, a site's address can be speech as much as its content. Sites such as www.aolsucks.com use company names to lambaste corporations and famous individuals. That's one of the reasons more and more political candidates are preemptively buying up obvious variations on a theme before they launch their campaigns. GOP presidential front-runner George W. Bush's campaign, for instance, is reportedly the owner of such domain names as www. georgebushsucks. com.

As the In-ternet becomes more central to our lives, the issue of who owns the rights to a given domain name can only continue to heat up, especially when it comes to commercial trademarks. Despite the flurry of legislative activity in Washington, however, it's not clear that new laws are needed. The non-profit International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which assigns and administers Internet domain names, favors resolving conflicts by having registrants undergo an arbitration-like procedure.

So far most disputes have been handled either through selling domain names or by extending traditional trademark law, which protects against fraud and "dilution" of brand names, into cyberspace. Last summer, for instance, Avery Dennison Corp., well-known makers of mailing labels and other office-related products, lost on appeal a case against a Los Angeles businessman who had registered the domains avery.net and dennison.net, apparently with the intent of selling them to people with those last names. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that the corporation's trademark was not famous enough to warrant exclusive use and that Avery and Dennison are common enough last names that trademark protection does not apply. In other cases, one assumes, the results would be different.

Republican members of Congress, however, seem to place little faith in the courts. "Traditional trademark law is very cumbersome and expensive," says Grayson Wolfe, an aide to Rep. Rogan. Wolfe acknowledges that the legislation may restrict speech in ways that raise constitutional issues. "It's hard with the First Amendment," he says, "but we're working on it."

There's another potential problem with whatever legislation ultimately makes it to the White House (the chief executive's residence, not the porno site). The Clinton administration favors relying on current trademark law to resolve disputes, so any bill submitted to the president may face a veto.