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An American company is suing the nation of South Africa in a bid to hang onto its prized domain name southafrica.com.

Seattle-based Virtual Countries, which owns a battalion of country-name-based sites, has filed a suit in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York against both the Republic of South Africa and the South African Tourism Board.

It registered the dot com in 1995, and claims South Africa should be content with its current dot net suffix, while it gets to milk the TLD.

The cyber-legals started when the South African government's Department of Communications got shirty over the URL earlier this month. It threatened to take its case to the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), an ICANN-spawned domain name dispute referee.

The mere mention of arbitration proceedings got Virtual Countries' back up, sending it running to the New York Court, screaming "not fair".

According to the company, this is the first time any country has tried to start a WIPO proceeding over domain name registration. Although WIPO did recently award Barcelona.com to the city of Barcelona.

"The government's motivation is obvious: It is a very valuable piece of property, and one that our company has been developing for several years," said Sean Duggan, VP of marketing at the outfit.

"We launched this suit for our own protection but it will also benefit many other companies which already own legally registered dot.com names," he added.

Virtual Countries' lawyer for the case, Salans law firm partner Wayne Matus, said: "The Republic of South Africa is threatening 'reverse-hijacking' - an attempt by a more formidable entity to take an address away from a less powerful, but otherwise legitimate owner".

Just why any company should have more right to the domain name of a country, rather than the country itself, was not explained. After all, doamins such as southafrica.com, france.com or America.com would all be worthless if it wasn't for their namesake.

For interested punters, virtualcountries.co.uk and virtualcountries.co.za (the South African suffix) are still available for any "less powerful" individuals who fancy becoming their "legitimate" owners. ®

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