Domain-name wars: Rise of the cybersquatters

Trademark owners say cybersquatting on the Web has gone too far -- and they're pushing back.

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Fighting back

Once a company has determined that it wants to pursue a cybersquatter, it must decide what action to take. It might start by paying a brand-protection service provider like MarkMonitor to contact the domain-name registrant and registrar and ask to have the site taken down. If the registrant is unresponsive, the brand owner has several other options.

Intellectual property owners can sue cybersquatters under the federal Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, but that is expensive and limits damages to $100,000; they can try to shut down sites containing copyrighted content under provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act; and in some cases they may be able to pursue violators for trademark abuse under statutes of the Lanham Act.

Verizson.com

The owner of verizson.com may soon be hearing from Verizon's lawyers.

Click to view larger image.

The least expensive approach is to file a UDRP complaint with a dispute-resolution provider such as WIPO or the National Arbitration Forum. But even when the complainant wins, which according to WIPO happens 85% of the time, that's not always the end of it. Cybersquatters can delay the transfer by challenging it in court.

Some registrars can be uncooperative, too, failing to complete domain-name transfers within the specified 10 days, Isenberg says. ICANN hasn't done enough to deal with complaints about such registrars, he adds. "They get a slap on the wrist and then it happens again," he says. (See "Registrars under fire in domain disputes" for more information.)

While IHG uses UDRP, Verizon has passed on that approach because, Deutsche says, a separate complaint must be filed for every domain-name infringement. With tens of thousands of cases to prosecute, the company decided to declare all-out war on cybersquatters. "We've brought high-profile lawsuits against some of them, and there's been a noticeable drop in the last couple of years in [Verizon-related] cybersquatting," Deutsche says.

"A lot of times you'll go out and find 100 brand infringements, and 30 or 40 are coming from the same entity," says James Brooks, director of product management at Cyveillance. Aggressively pursuing those firms, as Verizon has done, may cause them to look for "softer targets," he says.

ICANN by the numbers

  • Generic top-level domains (GTLD) contracted through ICANN: 16
  • ICANN-accredited domain registrars: 952
  • Domain-name registrations of ICANN GTLDs: 109 million

Registrations by GTLD

Top-level domain Number of registrations

Percentage

of total
.com 80,450,000 73.79%
.net 12,286,000 11.27%
.org 7,365,000 6.75%
.info 5,138,000 4.71%
.biz 2,077,000 1.91%
.mobi 876,000 0.80%
.name 288,000 0.26%
.asia 245,000 0.22%
.travel 215,000 0.20%
.cat 33,000 0.03%
.pro 30,000 0.03%
.jobs 15,000 0.01%
.aero 6,000 0.01%
.coop 6,000 0.01%
.museum 545 0.01%
Source: ICANN. Data current as of December 2008; rounded to nearest thousand. Excludes .gov, .edu, .mil, .int, and country-code domains, which ICANN does not have contracts to operate. A new ICANN-contracted GTLD, .tel, had not launched at time of reporting.

But more cases pile up on the docket every day. For example, Deutsche only recently learned of verizson.com, a Web site that includes affiliate advertising. The owners of such sites get paid a few cents whenever visitors view ads on the site or click on advertising affiliate links.

In some cases, ads refer potential visitors to competitors' sites. In others, Google ads may refer the visitor back to Verizon. "We end up paying Google, who pays the cybersquatter," Deutsche says.

Game-changer

Many intellectual property holders, already overwhelmed by cybersquatting activities, fear the problem will become untenable when ICANN makes a potentially unlimited number of new generic top-level domains (GTLD) available in early 2010. Currently, ICANN supports 16 domains, including .com.

Verizon's Deutsche questions the need for new TLDs, given the limited success other new domains have had relative to the .com domain. Nearly three quarters of all domain-name registrations under ICANN's administration are in the .com domain, and 92% are in the .com, .net and .org domains. She alleges that the primary motive, driven by registrars, is to sell more defensive domain names to intellectual property holders.

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