March 07, 2004

Reverse Domain Name Hijacking

There's an interesting article by Stacey Knapp on Internet domain names in the Oklahoma Journal of Law and Technology. In general, domain names belong to the first person or organization to register them. However, there is a provision by which ownership can be disputed if the domain name is a trademark or is likely to be confused with a trademark. This is intended to prevent hustlers from registering lots of domain names in which they have no interest, then holding them hostage when someone with a real interest in them comes along. If you've been clever enough to register, if the Mechanicsville Tool and Die Company decides to develop a web presence, you can't refuse to give up the domain name unless they pay you a lot of money. The Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) provides that in such a case the domain name should be transferred to the trademark holder.

A problem has arisen, however, with critique sites. These are sites devoted to criticism of a company with which people have had bad experiences. They often have names like MicrosoftSucks or AntiPhillips. Some of the targetted companies have attempted to obtain ownership of these domain names by claiming that they are readily confused with the company's own site. This practice has become common enough to have a name: Reverse Domain Name Hijacking. Many such claims have failed, as they should, since both the name and the site content make clear the difference between a company's own site and a critique site. But according to Knapp, some such complaints have been successful. In some cases the arbitration panel has ignored the fact that the site content will quickly clear up any confusion and ruled that non-native speakers of English might not understand American slang like sucks. They apparently don't realize that American slang probably diffuses faster than any other aspect of the language.

By the way, another tactic adopted by some large corporations is to pre-empt critics by themselves registering likely domain names. A salient example is the Chase Manhattan Bank, which has registered a plethora of domain names, such as I've never had any dealings with them, but what this strategy tells me is that they are afraid of criticism, and that tells me that they probably have poor service and are unresponsive to complaints. This doesn't sound like a good way to promote your business.

Posted by Bill Poser at March 7, 2004 04:08 PM