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Planned Parenthood goes for anti-abortionist necks

'Typosquatting' case goes straight to court

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The Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) is going for several notorious anti-abortionists necks and a famous cybersquatter in a case it has brought over nine domains it claims infringe its trademarks.

The federation, which provides teenagers with sexual health information and runs abortion clinics across America, has named four people in the court action over nine domains including wwwplannedparenthood.com (note the missing dot) and .org and teenswire.com, teenwires.com and teenwire.info and .biz. It owns the trademarks Planned Parenthood and Teenwire.

Thomas Fitch owns and runs the website AbortionIsMurder.org which until recently several of the domains pointed at. John Barry is a notorious cybersquatter with 10 decisions by ICANN-accredited domains arbitrators already against him. He also runs the organisation Pro-Life Domains. Finally Mark Purdy II and William Purdy run the organisation Please Don't Kill Your Baby.

All of the defendants are well-known online activists who have continually registered domains similar to well-known brands and companies including Coca-Cola, McDonalds and USA Today - and then pointed those sites at graphic anti-abortion sites.

The defendants and Planned Parenthood are well-known to one another having clashed in the past. Fitch was previously sued by the federation over his ownership of www.plannedparenthood.com and backed down after the legal fees threatened to bankrupt him. In the settlement, Fitch agreed not to use domain names containing "Planned Parenthood" or any other trademark they owned or any variation of those names.

The PPFA claims he has infringed this agreement and is clearly hoping to get him jailed or heavily fined. However while the domains were at one point directed to his site, Fitch is certain to claim he has no affiliation with the domains' owners - a defence he has used extensively in the past. In an email response to our questions, he wrote: "We are totally unaware of this case. We don't own those domain names and don't know who does. We have received no notifications, or court documents of any kind. This is the first we are hearing of this."

William Purdy and Please Don't Kill Your Baby are currently under a federal court order preventing them from redirecting domains they own to anti-abortion sites.

However, Planned Parenthood's conduct should also be called to account. The federation which at one point acted as a semi-autonomous government organisation is famously fond of using its power and influence in the law courts. A once unblemished status has been tarnished in recent years however with several states seeking to remove any and all state funding to it over its abortion activities. In America, the issue of abortion remains once of society's most controversial topics.

This predilection for court cases - this one for example is being run through the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act 2001, an Act increasingly being used to cover a wider and wider range of cases - is inappropriate this time however and even self-defeating.

While the US legal system is almost certain to support the PPFA's claims, by the PPFA bringing the action it has granted the one thing the defendants were seeking: publicity. Instead a far more effective, faster and cheaper solution would have been to go to one of the ICANN-accredited domain dispute arbitrators - two of which are notedly friendly towards powerful organisations with trademarks.

If this had been the route the PPFA has followed, not only would the total cost of the action come to a few thousand instead of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the case would only have been reported by a small section of the online press.

The defendants in the court case are almost certain to claim First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, which is guaranteed to stir up more trouble. Whereas at ICANN arbitrators, there is no constitution to bring to mind, merely a set of three (albeit fuzzy and flawed) conditions.

It is inconceivable that through ICANN not only would the PPFA have prevented the domains being used but would also have been handed ownership of them (once WIPO ruling says: "The addition of 'www' is immaterial as it is simply an indication of an Internet address and the deletion of the apostrophe is also immaterial in the context of Internet use. In short, this is a typical case of 'typosquatting'.")

The court system however will only prevent certain uses being made of the domains and they will remain the property of the original owners. There would appear to be nothing to stop them selling the domains to someone else who can then point them wherever they want and the PPFA then has another court case on its hands. An abject waste of time and money.

So why has the PPFA gone the law court route? We asked a spokeswoman last week. She said she didn't know but would get back to us. We have yet to get a response. It is possible the PPFA is unaware of the ICANN arbitration system, although that seems extremely unlikely. It could also be that the PPFA has enjoyed its powerful position for so long that its culture leads it inevitably to the law courts (it also immediately sued another cybersquatter who had registered the name of its president, Gloria Feldt, and pointed it at a pro-choice site).

Or it could be that the domains are not really the issue - the issue is to crush several thorns in the side of the organisation and to use the weight of the US legal system to do so. ®

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