By MARK PEARSON Follow @Journlaw
Since the advent of the Internet, profiteers have tried to exploit the registration of domain names of unwitting celebrities, businesses and organisations. Lawmakers are still trying to work out how to deal with this problem, and quite often there is absolutely nothing the courts can do because the offender lives in a different jurisdiction. Disputes often end up in the hands of international and national domain registration agencies who engage in arbitration between the parties to try to resolve the argument over who is really entitled to the name. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) will work with national bodies to withdraw a domain name from a cybersquatter.
It is in your best interests as a blogger to keep a close eye on your domain name registration and to register in advance any close wording variants, especially if you are using your blog to any commercial ends. You never actually ‘own’ your URL – you are only licensed to use it for a certain period by the registration body. Cybersquatters keep a close eye on the registration process and pounce once a popular name becomes available. They then use might use it for selling advertising, stealing your identity theft or trying to sell it back to you at an inflated price.
You can’t register every possible variation on the spelling of your name so some spyware and phishing operators register common misspellings of the URLs of famous people and corporations – a practice known as ‘typosquatting’.
Even trademark law is inconsistent in the area of domain names and courts will often not grant relief unless someone clearly demonstrates an intent in ‘bad faith’ to profit from the deception within the same jurisdiction as the victim.
The international dispute resolution processes for domain names might be less expensive than litigation, but they can be beyond the means of the ordinary blogger or small business. WIPO’s Arbitration and Mediation Center charges between US$1500 and US$5000 for their services, depending how many domain names are contested and the number of independent panelists needed for the adjudication. They claim they can process such claims within two months of filing. The domain name cases they have handled – listed here – make for interesting reading and feature many of the world’s leading brands winning URL registration back from shysters and spammers from remote corners of the planet.
Major social media network and blog hosts like Facebook and WordPress also have rules to deter you from registering under other people’s or corporations’ names. They claim they will act to shut down the offender’s account if the target person or organisation complains. But they are sometimes slow to respond and complaints get lost in their bureaucracies. PBS reported on the difficulties a Georgia mother faced removing a fake Facebook profile on her 13-year-old daughter. This was despite the social network’s Statement of Rights and Responsibilities requiring users to use their real names and not ‘create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission’. On the other hand, Twitter tolerates numerous impersonation ‘handles’ set up for comedic purposes. Its policy allows users “to create parody, commentary, or fan accounts”.
[Adapted from my book, Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued. A Global Guide to the Law for Anyone Writing Online. (Allen & Unwin, 2012).
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.
© Mark Pearson 2013