The insane domain name game

Harry Potter, Cybersquatter

Madonna, Sting, Microsoft, William Hague - they've all had brushes with "cybersquatters" this year and survived.

Wacky WIPO kicked off the new year with its first ruling, and has hardly taken time to draw breath since - dishing out domain name decisions willy nilly, and normally not in favour of the little guy.

In January it gave worldwrestlingfederation.com to the World Wrestling Federation. Seemed a fair decision since the guy forced to hand it over didn't really seem to want the domain apart from to make a profit - he had bought it for $100 in October and offered to sell it to WIPO three days later for $1,000.

But celebs soon cottoned on to WIPO's ways, and went running to the organisation with their whinges. Among those to try and use WIPO's muscle this year were Sting, Madonna, Jeanette Winterson, French actress Isabelle Adjini and Sade.

Not all the stars won - in July Sting lost his case because a.) Sting is not the singer's real name - he's really called Gordon, and b.) Sting is a pretty common word.

But not all of WIPO's rulings made sense - three months later Madonna was handed Madonna.com on a silver platter, despite the fact that Madonna is a pretty common word (and pretty important to the Catholic Church). And so it continued...

Bridget Jones' Diary author Helen Fielding won Bridgetjones.com from a Florida man after he tried to flog her the domain for £10,000. He reckoned he wanted it for a fan site, but as the domain had been unused for two years WIPO branded him a cybersquatter. Here WIPO also interestingly ruled that trademarks could legitimately be used for fan sites.

Snippets of WIPO madness can be found here.

Corporate hysteria

What do you do if an individual registers a domain name containing any part of your company name? Sue them of course! The year turned many corporations into domain name bullies - with much shouting of "get off my land" and demands for fan sites or completely unrelated sites to be turned over. Sometimes they offered money, sometimes not.

In July, power Goliaths Microsoft and Reuters both won domains containing words similar to their names. Reters.com, ruters.com and reuers.com all changed hands, as did microsof.com. And Nintendo, Dell, Ralph Lauren, Palm, AltVista, Chase Manhattan Bank, to name but a few, have all charged in guns blazing, hiding behind nasty legal letters and threats.

There wasn't much the little guy could do, apart from try and drum up a bit of media coverage to embarrass the companies involved.

Employees at one feisty British outfit sent its corporate bully (Chase Manhattan) the shirts off their own backs in a coffin as a protest.

As the year progressed, the definition of a cybersquatter seemed to change. They were no longer someone who bought a domain and tried to exploit it for cash, but could be anyone - including kids - who nabbed any part of any trademark for a site.

The prize for grand corporate domain bully therefore goes to Warner Brothers. A late contender, but its campaign against kids' Harry Potter sites, or indeed anyone owning sites bearing the words Harry Potter, took some beating. Threats against domains such as harrypotterguide.co.uk and harry-potter-magic.co.uk were sent out - both sites are run by children.

Barefaced Cheek

In May Prime Minister Tony Blair's son became one of the world's youngest citizens to be cybersquatted. Just hours after he was born a teacher registered leoblair.co.uk and put the domain up for sale.

Another British punter was keen to get his mits on Wembleystadium.net, but when WIPO ordered him to hand it over to the owners of the London sports venue he had to think fast.

"Because of my seven-foot-tall height, and large skeletal frame, I have been commonly known as wembleystadium.net for many, many years," claimed Thomson. WIPO told him to hand it over anyway.

But at least these domains were wanted. Think how embarrassing it must be in the dotcom age to be snubbed by e-squatters. Back in April a Scottish entrepreneur bought the domain williamhague.co.uk, stuck it on an auction site, and waited for the bids to start rolling in. Two months later the chap, who shares the same name as the balding politician, admitted he had sadly received no offers.

Sheer Madness
Although the dotcom bubble is bursting towards the end of 2000, Website holders held onto their beloved sites earlier in the year on hopes of untold riches. In May one Brit actually turned down an offer from US firm Ebuy of around $5 million for his domain e-buy.com. He reckoned he could make more cash by using the domain to launch an online department store in July.

Today the site still carries a sign promising it "will be accessible very soon". ®

Related Stories
Cybersquatting: Full Coverage

Madonna wins domain namesake
WIPO madness roundup
Wound up about WIPO

Palm leans on cybersquatter who predicts future
AltaVista shames cybersquatter
Reg to fight for Harry Potter 'Cybersquatter'
Another child's Christmas ruined by Warner Brothers

E-buy.com owner rejects 4.7m offer for domain
Mr Wembleystadium.net loses domain case

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