‘Dirty tricks’ spark rush to register Web names

Concern is mounting over ‘hijacking’ of Internet domains but with no UK legal precedent, companies risk being held to ransom over their brand names

Advertisers are getting tough over their Website names as fears escalate about sharp practice on the Internet.

The issue was highlighted recently when a company called Allied Carpets Group registered the names of ten carpet retailers with the UK Internet registration group NomiNet (MW July 19).

The companies registered included high street rivals to Allied Carpets – Carpetright and Carpetland – although Allied Carpets itself refused to say whether it was linked to Allied Carpets Group.

And last month, Harrods took out an injunction against Michael Lawrie, of UK Network Services, who last year registered the name harrods.com with US Internet site allocation body InterNIC.

Harrods, which has already registered the UK-specific site address harrods.co.uk, is putting pressure on Lawrie to free the alternate Website address to ensure that its trademark is not infringed.

Nick Gardner, a partner at Harrods’ solicitors Herbert Smith, says: “There have been a number of well-publicised cases in the US over the ‘hijacking’ of domain names.”

A Harrods spokesman adds: “Any company of note is now vulnerable to having its name misappropriated by others on the Net. This abuse must be stamped out.”

But how? Clearly a growing number of Internet surfers rely on using obvious “handles” such as harrods.com or harrods.co.uk in searching for Websites. Yet if companies are disallowed these addresses, and forced to use less obvious ones, it could lead to confusion and substantial loss of corporate and brand exposure on the growing medium.

Network Systems, which handles the applications for Net domain names for US provider InterNIC, requests that applicants should not breach trademark copyright in registering addresses.

But ambiguities in copyright law still dictate that Website names are allocated on a first-come-first-served basis. And InterNIC, like Nominet UK, stresses that it is a registration system – not an arbitration service.

Peter Morgan, a spokesman for Nominet, which took over responsibility for administering all UK domain names in July, says there is nothing to prevent sharp operators grabbing coveted names.

Ultimately, it is up to the courts to decide whether trademark copyright has been breached. And, as Morgan accepts, a lot of the issues have still to be tested.

It was computer journalist Joshua Quittner who first highlighted the money-making potential of hijacking domain names by registering the name mcdonalds.com.

The fastfood giant eventually donated money to charity at Quittner’s request to secure the name. But this light-hearted example has had more serious consequences. And UK companies may well come to experience McDonald’s dilemma – sue or pay up.

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