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Easy now: Stelios calls to explain his company's behaviour

Billionaire is master of his domain

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We obviously struck a nerve on Tuesday when we reported Easy Group has made an out-of-court settlement with the owner of Easycar.com and Easyprotest.com. We drew attention to the previous cases Easy Group has initiated involving domain names beginning with "easy" and suggested it was a Napoleonic crusade.

Yesterday the group's director of corporate affairs James Rothnie called to explain its position and complain of our handling of the story. In the afternoon however, the billionaire head of Easy Group himself, Stelios Haji-Iannou, also called in an effort to persuade us that the recent cases are fully justifiable.

"I can't see where you are coming from," he told us. "I am also very conscious of the fact that this may look like David and Goliath - which was just what we had to deal with when we started." Stelios started the Easy Group with EasyJet, the low-cost airline, which the monster players already in the market attempted to screw up in the same way they had Freddy Laker years before.

Fine, we tell him, we are concerned that his company is pressuring people off legitimately owned domains simply because they begin with the word "easy". "Look, some, not all, but some of these people are breaking intellectual property rights," he says. "Now are you someone that agrees with these rights or do you think they are the evil tools of capitalism?"

We reply that we agree with most aspects of intellectual property law. "Well, if someone starts up a company that uses the name 'easy' and they make money on the brand that we have developed, they are breaking the law. And not only that but it is the consumer that suffers. If they think it is us, they will expect a certain level of service and of trust."

But what of the site www.easypeazy.com - which is a recognised phrase in English. What right does he have to try to take that? (WIPO ruled against Easy Group when it came up for ruling.) "Well, what does it sell?" We don't know, but we are talking about a URL, to which anyone is entitled to register. "The thing is, it's not a phrase, it's a URL that you can visit and which can con the consumer."

What of the word "easy" itself? A very common word. "Yes, 'easy' is an adjective but it is also a brand. If we build a company from nothing, invest years of work, take out thousands of hours of TV advertising and make it successful and then someone says 'I like that, I'm going to start up Easy Publishing', then I will take exception to that [Easy Publishing was our example]. Easy Group covers a number of areas and it is easy for consumers to be tricked. Passing off is a matter of fact and it is an offence. By setting up a business in that name, they are committing a crime."

What of www.easy-jet.com? [A WIPO ruled that the owner Tim Holt had legitimately registered it for the sale of ink jet cartridges.] "I don't understand how WIPO works - it is really unbelievable [we are all in agreement here]. Besides, after the case he sold the domain to us for a small sum of money - proving that he was passing off."

However, Easy Group had threatened to take him to court for passing off. We suggest that even if Easy Group feels its property rights are going to be infringed, is it right that an innocent party is subjected to legal action from a multi-billion pound company? Even if that person had no intention of using it in that way, they would hand the domain over to save on court costs. We have always disapproved of this corporate bullying. "Passing off is a fact, and an offence. We let the judge decide," Stelios replied.

This over litigious approach is not new and was embarrassingly highlighted almost two years ago to the day. Stelios had just unveiled EasyEverything Internet cafes and was livid that ISP EasyNet owned the domain Easyeverything.co.uk. [EasyNet itself doesn't fit into the basket of companies that Easy Group feel infringes its rights because it existed before any of Stelios' Easy companies.]

There was angry talk of legal proceedings, before the MD of EasyNet Graham Davies revealed he had had a email regarding the matter but that was it. Somewhat bemused, Davies said: "If they want it, they only have to ask. I don't know why they didn't come to us beforehand."

But back to the whole point of these conversations - Easyprotest.com. How does EasyProtest.com fit in with any of the above examples, especially when the owner made it completely clear that it was going against the Easy Group. "I don't know the specifics of the case, and it was settled out of court, so it will do no good to discuss the past now."

The fact is that Stelios is an extremely successful businessman who has made his fortune through supporting the small man by undercutting greedy multi-nationals. An accusation that he is doing the same to small people now he has made it offends him. However, in a summing up before the conversation ended, Stelios makes it clear he has forgotten one thing - that the Internet is not set up purely for business and no matter how much money companies pump into it, there will always be a social and creative aspect to the Web.

This then is Stelios' outlined approach to the Internet and Web sites. "There are different cases and different people. We have a problem from blatant passing off - and the problem with the Easy Group brand extension is that people know I will jump from industry to industry - then there is squatting which is a nuisance and a form of blackmailing.

"There are those that say I just want it and won't doing anything with it. I don't know why they would want to but I may not concern myself with them. And then there are the people that started a company called Easy-something that was created before EasyJet, who I would never dream of touching because they run a legitimate business."

"Intellectual property is a very significant asset and needs to be protected. The Internet is immature medium and intellectual rights need to be protected on it." ®

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