What’s in a name? Or, more precisely, what’s in a name that makes it the exclusive property of a person or company? And how can you be sure whose property it is?
This is the problem currently faced by Network Solutions Inc., the company in charge of handing out “domain name” registrations on the Internet. A domain name is the registered labellike ibm.com, edge.net, or nashscene.comthat identifies a company or organization on the Internet.
The system works fairly well when people are honest. To register exclusive rights to a domain name, you simply e-mail a few pieces of information to a service called Internic. The name will usually be yours in less than two weeks. It’s fast, easy, and efficient.
It’s also slightly insecure. This is because anyone can register a domain name, a fact that often leads to problems. For example, if you own a company named Greed Manufacturing, it’s entirely possible that greed.com or greedman.com could already have been handed out.
In the past few months, several high-profile battles over these Internet names have come to light. Javanco, an electronics surplus store based in Nashville, made national headlines when Sun Microsystems demanded it give up the name “javanco.com.” Intent on preventing anyone from infringing on its patented Java programming language, it claimed the name “Javanco” was its own property. In the end, Sun was forced to apologize to the store on its corporate Web sitea very public and humiliating gesture.
A similar case happened with media monolith Time Warner Inc. Owner of the Warner Bros. cartoon characters, the company challenged an Internet site called roadrunner.com, claiming the name was illegal. Unfortunately for Time Warner, the site was operated by a private New Mexico company called Roadrunner Computer Systems. The case was dismissed, but not before the corporate giant suffered some very public embarrassment.
McDonald’s even tried to prevent another organization from using a portion of its trademarked name on the Internet. It went after an advocacy group protesting, among other things, the content of the fast-food chain’s burgers. The company posed an unsuccessful challenge to the group’s domain name, “mcspotlight.org.” Now it’s proceeding with a libel case against the site.
To ensure some form of confidence in the system by which these domain names are registered, Network Solutions has a instituted new policy. It says it will shut down a site within 90 days if someone holding a registered trademark to a site’s name makes a challenge. Any challenge will not be resolved by the company but rather by the courts or private arbitrators.
The new policy has not been accepted with open arms. Trademark lawyers say the solution relies too heavily on registered trademarks while ignoring other forms of legally recognized trademarks. “I am really flabbergasted that they would put a band-aid on what to me looks like a gaping wound,” says David Maher, a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in Chicago. “It doesn’t solve the basic problem. It gives all the rights to the entity that has a U.S. or foreign trademark registration, totally ignoring common-law trademark rights.’’
Internet freedom of speech advocates have also questioned the new policy. A spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation says the issue may come down to a lawsuit. So far, however, no suit has been filed.
What’s in a name? Apparently, a lot of confusion.
♦ The first effort to regulate the Internet centrally has been launched in Singapore. Struggling with maintaining local decency standards on a worldwide medium, the small nation is installing large central computer servers. By law, it will require every Internet service provider in the country to route its access through those machines. The computers, known as “proxy servers,” will rely on huge lists of restricted Web sites to prevent obscene or restricted material from slipping through.
So far, there hasn’t been much of a protest against a decency standard in Singapore. Some users have complained, however, about a provision in the new rules that affects Singapore Internet groups discussing religion and politics. These groups have to register with the government and bar material deemed likely to inflame racial or religious sentiment.
Joel Moses can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.