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Defence firm loses domain case against cannabis site

Lockheed Martin's appeal for ukskunkworks.co.uk fails

Defence company Lockheed Martin Corporation has lost its attempt to gain control of a web address currently hosting a site devoted to cannabis paraphernalia. The ruling (pdf) on the .co.uk domain was an appeal from an earlier ruling.

The case was heard by one panelist under the dispute resolution process of Nominet, the registry for .uk domains. Lockheed Martin lost and appealed, but has now failed in its appeal before a three person panel.

The domain ukskunkworks.co.uk is owned by UKSkunkworks Ltd, a company which sells cannabis seeds and smoking paraphernalia related to cannabis. Skunk is a slang term for a particularly strong strain of cannabis.

Lockheed Martin tried to gain control of the domain because it has in times of war operated a secret laboratory developing new products which it called Skunk Works. It owns several UK and community trademarks related to the term.

Lockeed Martin claimed in its case that UKSkunkworks registered the domain in order to disrupt its business, and that it was a blocking tactic. It said that the registration would cause consumer confusion.

The panel found that such claims were unlikely, since the term "skunk works" was not a well known one in the UK, and certainly not one immediately associated with Lockheed Martin.

"The complainant [Lockheed Martin]'s arguments rely heavily on the fame of its use of the name 'skunk works', attested by a collection of articles from magazines. Underlying these three contentions there appears to be an assumption by the complainant that this fame is such that anyone seeing the name must have prior awareness of Lockheed Martin's use," said the panel in its ruling. "The panel's view is that at least in the United Kingdom, there is no such general awareness."

"The respondent says that he had never heard of the complainant or its subsidiaries before being contacted about the name," it said. "Furthermore, the general lack of awareness in the UK of the complainant's use of the name means that users of the respondent's website would be highly unlikely to associate it in any way with the complainant."

The panel was scathing about Lockheed Martin's claim that UKSkunkworks' business was illegitimate and designed to damage it.

"It has not been shown by the complainant that the activities of the complainant are illegal or that the respondent has been prosecuted for illegal activities," it said. "Naturally, the panel can sympathise with LMC's desire to avoid association with activities that people may object to, even if the activities are within the law."

"Lockheed Martin's original use of the name 'skunk works' was humorous, and a sense of humour may be appropriate to this situation," said the ruling. "There may be some comfort for Lockheed Martin in the fact that many people have as little wish to be associated with military aircraft as have Lockheed Martin to be associated with illegal drug use. The risk of 'contamination by association' therefore seems low."

Lockheed Martin listed a number of decisions of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO)'s dispute resolution panels which had gone in its favour in support of its case. The Nominet panel, though, noted that these panels were located in North America where the association of Skunk Works with Lockheed Martin was stronger.

Litigation expert John Mackenzie of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said that the case demonstrated the need to present evidence in support of arguments in front of dispute resolution panels.

"This is another illustration that big brands have to be careful how they present their case," he said. "Here they seemed to rely on previous WIPO cases they had won, which obviously didn't get them very far. Brand owners have to take each case on its own merits and make sure you have enough evidence to support your case."

As with all domain dispute resolutions, though, either party can take the case to a court after the dispute resolution process is complete. "They could go to court, which would have little regard to the case heard by the panellists," said Mackenzie. "The court they went to would depend on the normal rules of jurisdiction, so it could be a US court or a UK court."

Copyright © 2007, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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