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31 July 2000

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Two of the biggest names in the rock music pantheon have underlined the evolving legal issues relating to 'cybersquatting' and the ownership of internet domain names. On Friday 1970s prog-rock band Jethro Tull won a dispute over the names jethrotull.com and jethro-tull.com. But earlier in the week Sting, the singer, lost his claim to have the internet domain name Sting.com transferred to him. A case of 'Sting stung', perhaps.

Jethro Tull, famed for the flute-playing antics of front-man Ian Anderson, won the dispute against Denny Hammerton of Minneola, Florida. Mr Hammerton had offered the Web addresses to the band for $13,000 (£8,700). But the World Intellectual Property Organisation, which is affiliated to the United Nations, ruled that he had set up the addresses in bad faith and failed to show a legitimate interest in them. Jethro Tull was judged to have a more meaningful trademark interest — despite taking its name from the inventor of an early piece of agricultural equipment.

Sting, on the other hand, found his case failing on the grounds that his name is in common usage. The former singer with The Police had maintained that he had been rendering "high quality musical services" under the Sting name for 20 years. But the WIPO ruled that the word 'sting' was in common usage and not a trademark or service mark that had been registered by the singer. It also said the names had not been registered in bad faith.

The domain name Sting.com had been registered in 1995 by Michael Urvan of Marietta, Georgia, in the United States. Mr Urvan had not been using the site and had reportedly offered it to Sting for $25,000. Sting, whose real name is Gordon Sumner, has his own web-site at www.sting.compaq.com. He only filed his complaint against Mr Urvan in May.

The case underlines the increasing frequency of domain name disputes, which are being handled by various organisations under the auspices of Icann — the Internet Corporation for Ascribed Names and Numbers.

But the vast majority of cases are going against the cybersquatters. Last week saw Reuters, the news group, win its dispute with an Iranian company, which registered five names, including reutersnews.com, wwwreuters.com and reuters.com. In that case the WIPO panel ruled that the Iranian company had no rights to any of the domain names. Again, the firm had not been actively using the sites, although it had suggested a fee to Reuters for giving the names back.

Reuters joins a growing list of major companies that have won back their domain name rights through the WIPO. Others include Christian Dior, Deutsche Bank, Microsoft and Nike.

The WIPO is one of several bodies accredited by Icann to rule on domain name disputes and prevent them from becoming expensive and time-consuming court cases. A total of 817 cases have been filed with the WIPO's online arbitration system since December. So far there have been 316 decisions, with 81 per cent finding against the cybersquatters. The system is cheap — complainants pay a fee of $1,000 to the WIPO to adjudicate. It is also quick, with decisions often being made in 45 days or so.

But there are two problems. First, the legal status of these rulings is unclear. They could be the subject of legal challenge, with a case already pending involving the actor Julia Roberts. A cybersquatter lost a case earlier this year in which the internet surfer concerned was ordered to transfer the domain namejuliaroberts.com back to the film star. But the cybersquatter has filed a complaint in a US court to stop it.

Also, the decision last month to allow the creation of a new set of domain name suffixes such as .shop and .store is expected to lead to a proliferation of cybersquatting. A new race will start as established firms battle to register the new variations of their trademark names before a cybersquatter gets there first.

In the meantime, though, it's Jethro Tull 1, Sting 0.