Dell joins domain name hall of shame (again)

No, Mr Dell, website designer, you can't have www.dellwebsites.com

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Comment Dell has joined the domain name hall of shame, alongside such notables as Microsoft, the Easy Group and BAA, for its flagrantly unjustified hounding of website www.dellwebsites.com.

According to Dell's laywers - old hands at this sort of thing - the owner of Dellwebsites is committing "an act of parasitism" and "creating a risk of confusion" between himself and the online PC vendor Dell. It wants the domain signed over to it, at the owner's cost.

The theory runs that as soon as someone sees or hears of www.dellwebsites.com, they immediately think "oh that lovely company that sells cheap but well-built PCs has got into web design". They are then overwhelmed with revulsion when they find out it's nothing to do with Dell the PC maker.

Yes, incredible as it may seem, the name "Dell" did exist before 1984. You may think this was obvious since the company is named after founder Michael Dell. If nothing else, his parents would have used the name before him. Does Michael not realise that other families may also the same surname? He probably does, but tough-arse businessman that he is, he's not afraid to screw over his own kin.

In this case that is one Paul Dell. Paul lives in Spain and, incredibly, makes websites for a living. Paul thought the Internet domain Dellwebsites.com was therefore a pretty good description of what he was up to online (apparently, Dell.com had already gone).

But while Mr Dell (Paul, that is) was pleased with his purchase back in April 2001, it now appears that he was trying to rip off Mr Dell (Michael) and his enormous US company. Quite what the enormous impact Paul's website has had on the PC giant is hard to gauge.

For the first half of this year, Dell's revenue actually went up 20 per cent to $23 billion. No mention of Paul Dell's web design business has appeared in its financial results as having a negative impact on these sales.

Nonetheless, it's not just about the money, it's about the principle, isn't it? Which perhaps makes it hard to understand why it was that Dell backed down the last time it tried to take Dellwebsites.com off Paul Dell. Yes, Paul Dell has been through this charade once before, in April 2002. Dell was still adamant that it rightly owned the domain, but when Paul Dell make it clear that he wasn't prepared to cave in to pressure, the company walked away.

Why didn't it take him to a domain arbitrator or a law court, you ask? Most likely because it didn't stand a chance in hell of winning the case. And so jump forward two-and-a-half years and we're here again. What has changed?

Not much it seems: "You continue to use the denomination DELL WEB SITES as trade mark, company name, trade name or shop sign to designate your activities," roars Dell's lawyers - Lovells. Er, yes.

"Alike you continue to use the denomination DELL WEB SITES as domain name and within the copyright notices to which the Site links." Well, that's because that's where I run my business, haven't we been here before?

"Finally, you modified the copyright notice to 'Copyright 2004, Paul Dell, Dell Web Sites' in order to include your first name." That's it! They've got Paul Dell bang to right because - get this - he included his first name as a copyright notice on his own website.

This would be funny were it not so worrying for the individuals and small businesses that find themselves at the end of such unwarranted demands by powerful legal firms and international businesses.

It shows how much there is still to be done on pulling the Internet into the world's legal systems when big companies continue to issue threatening letters with impunity. Who can a legitimate domain owner turn to when they are hounded by a huge corporation? What mechanism exists to punish those companies guilty of trying to steal online property through misrepresentation?

As far as we can see, nothing. Except of course public exposure and embarrassment. Mike Rowe got expenses, a visit to the Microsoft campus, an X-box and other assorted goodies when the fact that Microsoft was threatening him over the domain www.MikeRoweSoft.com started appearing in the press. It made a good story, he was a kid and the phonetics were so good that it was irrestible.

But it didn't stop Microsoft for one second. It continued to pursue, and eventually beat Mike Rushton and his "Mikerosoft.net" domain. It had no rights to that either. It was only when Microsoft went for "mocosoft.com" that a WIPO arbitrator finally revealed where the limits lay in the great domain name grab.

On this side of the Atlantic, Stelios Haji-Iannou of Easy Group has embarked on a similar crusade, claiming, incredibly, that any domain that begins with the word "easy" (or even, "easi") is his by right. It is simply ludicrous, but when faced with a huge company and aggressive lawyers, who can blame an individual for handing over their domain rather than deal with the pressure?

Again, Easy Group knows that it has no rights as recognised by either the law courts of the domain arbitrators but that doesn't stop it from claiming it does in threatening legal letters.

And if a company really does want that domain, it is prepared to go further than that. In the case of Gatwick.com, BAA appeared to repeat the iron-fist tactics it had earlier applied to win Baa.com, sparking a number of accusations from the lawyer hired by Gatwick.com's owner that the company had knowingly and purposefully lied and misrepresented itself to the domain arbitrator.

Dellwebsites.com is just the latest in a long line of unfair disputes and the situation will continue so long as big companies hold sway over the Internet and no one institutes a system of penalties for abusive behaviour. The domain arbitrators aren't going to introduce it because big companies are their bread and butter. The registry owners - VeriSign and the like - virtually define themselves by their refusal to accept any liability for the product that they grow rich on the back of.

Perhaps it's time for Internet overseeing organisation ICANN to show some mettle and start making the internet a medium for the planet and not just lawyers and multi-nationals. ®

Related stories

Microsoft halted in phonetic domain crusade
Mike Rowe goes soft, hands over PR victory
Stelios High Court favourite vows to battle on
Gatwick.com owner wins WIPO battle
BAA.com domain battle settled out of court

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