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March 14, 2006

trademarks and URLs

Nowadays, you can pretty much assume a one-to-one correspondence between website addresses and the names of corporations. Take a famous name like Coca Cola, Microsoft, or General Motors, add ".com," and you'll find a website owned by the company. However, I remember the late nineties, when sometimes a URL with a corporate name would belong to a squatter who was hoping that the big company would buy him out. And sometimes the website was used to criticize the company in question--as an exercise of free speech, in my opinion.

Perhaps the "squatters" were all bought out, or perhaps they were scared away by cease-and-desist letters like this one:

Your registration of this domain name, which is essentially identical to our client's trademark, is likely to cause confusion, mistake and deception, and hence constitutes infringement of our client's trademarks and copyrights, as well as constituting unfair competition. Your offering the domain name for sale constitutes "cybersquatting," and violates our client's trademark and copyright rights. In view of the foregoing, we demand that you immediately cancel your domain name registration and provide us with copies of the executed cancellation documents.

I do not understand all the nuances of trademark law, although this site from the Berkman Center is helpful. I can, however, venture some opinions about the public interest:

1. It is important for people to be able to express and disseminate independent views about major corporations. For that reason, we have free speech rights to use the names of corporations in print and even in prominent places like the titles of books and tv shows. The Internet is a communications medium, built originally with public funds. I see no grounds for giving companies the rights to their own names in URLs any more than they should be allowed to control the titles of books.

2. It would be possible for someone to infringe a trademark by appearing to be, say, Coca-Cola. If I took the URL cocacola.com and sold soft drinks online, I would be confusing customers and profiting from the company's investment. That would be against the public interest. However, there is no confusion at all if I operate cocacola.com as an anti-soft-drink website. Then clearly I'm not Coca-Cola. If I lower the company's sales by criticizing it, then Coca-Cola must answer my arguments in the public forum.

3. There seems to be a moral problem with obtaining a website that includes the name of a famous company simply in order to sell it to the firm. This is classic "squatting." You are monopolizing a piece of the commons that you know has special value for one particular entity. I don't think that's admirable. However, I'm not sure that it's worse than other forms of rent-seeking that are perfectly legal, e.g., staking a claim to the best piece of land or building a bridge at the narrowest point on a river and charging tolls. The "other" Peter Levine who owns www.peterlevine.com has inconvenienced me, but he certainly hasn't violated my rights. Besides, if you obtain a URL that includes the name of a corporation and you sell it to the highest bidder, you are offering critics of the company a chance to buy a platform for free speech. If the company places the highest bid, it has paid a premium for fending off critics. Perhaps that's not such a bad thing.

March 14, 2006 7:04 AM | category: Internet and public issues | Comments


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