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Microsoft lawyers threaten Mike Rowe (17)

Losing the domain name plot

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In what could easily be mistaken for an Onion story, Microsoft has unleashed the full fury of its lawyers on 17-year-old Canadian high-school student, Mike Rowe, demanding the handover of his Internet domain.

The domain? MikeRoweSoft.com. No, seriously.

Victoria-based Mike is currently studying maths and chemistry and plans to study computer science at Victoria University next year. He registered the domain in August because he thought it would be cool to have a site that sounded like the famous company to show his Web designing skills.

The Beast of Redmond however reckons that the phonetic domain infringes its copyright and insists Mike hand it over or face the consequences.

Mike told us that when an email from Microsoft’s Canadian lawyers Smart & Biggar arrived on 19 November laying out its complaint, he was “amazed and appalled”. He replied saying he didn’t want to hand over the domain and didn’t feel there was any risk it would damage Microsoft’s name.

He then got another email. “They responded to this email by offering to give me all of my out-of-pocket expenses in return for the domain name. This came out to be $10; the amount I paid for the domain. This made me feel insulted. I had spent a lot of time building up my site and I had only been offered $10 for my work. I responded by asking for $10,000, which I regret doing now, for my work and domain name.”

As he now knows, Mike had unwittingly slipped into the classic trap set by companies in order to get hold of domain names - the creation of a “bad faith” use of the domain. By offering to sell the domain for profit (even if sparked by the offer of payment by the other party), according to the bent logic of domain dispute arbitrators, it shows the owner had no legitimate interest in the domain and so it should be handed over.

Microsoft, with its case bolstered, declined and Mike heard no more until 14 January when a 25-page letter and book were Fed-Ex’ed to his house explaining why he would have to hand over the domain, stating he had intended all along to sell the domain for profit and that his domain would confuse Microsoft customers.

“I decided to go to the press when I received the package from the lawyers’ office. I thought people would be interested in my story and I wanted to know what people had to say about the situation I am in. There is really nothing I can do to push or fight this except for telling people how things are going with the whole situation. The domain dispute is in the hands of the WIPO at the moment so I have no control over what happens to my domain name.”

Can Microsoft really be attempting to take a phonetic-sounding domain name? Well, Mike is reassuringly candid and although we have not seen Microsoft’s letter and the company has yet to confirm or deny its threats are real, it seems to hang together. Unless Mike is a first-rate hoaxer, it would appear that Microsoft really has lost the plot and is trying to extend the already flawed domain dispute rules into hitherto unexplored territory.

By making the situation public though, Mike tells us he has been bolstered. “After going to the press, I have realised that I should stick it out till the end. After the massive amount of support I have received from people across the globe I am motivated to stick with what I believe in.”

And so he should. It would seem Microsoft has no choice but to back down as, legally, it doesn’t have a hope in hell of winning and there are plenty of lawyers out there who would love to get a win against Microsoft under their belt.

Mike doesn’t quite know what to make of it all: “I can’t say I have ever been in a more surreal situation than this. It has all been quite overwhelming really. I don’t know what to say about it, I have just been going with the flow.” ®

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