US citizen sues France over France-dot-com brouhaha

French-born man says country took his 24-yr-old domain name

An expat in the US is suing the French government and Verisign after the Fifth Republic seized the domain name France.com.

The lawsuit, filed in the American federal courts, seeks the return of France.com to the control of the online travel agency Jean-Noel Frydman, a French-born US citizen, set up around the domain France.com Inc.

The lawsuit's defendants are named as: the French Republic itself; the republic's Foreign Office; France's foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian; French tourism development agency Atout France; and Verisign, the latter as the ultimate non-court arbiter of all things dot-com related.

Frydman bought France.com in 1994 but claims it was "unlawfully taken… without compensation" in 2015 after the French tourism ministry allegedly "misused the French judicial system to seize the domain… because it included the word 'France'."

The seizure of the website, he claims, is set to cost him "millions of dollars in branding, marketing, and business development efforts, and cause millions more in lost profits".

"Defendants' seizure of the domain name through the French courts and with the complicity of Web.com, rather through a legitimate purchase from Plaintiff for compensation, was intended to enable Defendants to hijack a valuable asset without paying the cost," said Frydman in his legal complaint.

According to the complaint, France "seized" the dot-com domain without warning in the middle of this decade: "Defendants did not approach Plaintiff to purchase or license the domain, the trademark, or Plaintiff's underlying business and goodwill. Instead, in 2015, Defendants misused the French judicial system to seize the domain from Plaintiff without compensation."

A letter dated 2016 (PDF, 3 pages) sent from what appears to be France.com Inc's lawyer to domain provider Web.com, appears to contradict this, stating: "After a years-long cooperative relationship between the Government of France and our client, the country considered purchasing the domain name france.com for itself. When it became clear that the government could not afford to pay a fair price, the Government of France instead set out to expropriate the france.com domain name."

Frydman's complaint alleges Web.com – which is not named as a defendant in the suit – had transferred the site to the French Republic's control in March this year. France.com currently redirects to the English-language version of France.fr, the site of the European country's tourism development agency.

None of the defendants had made any legal filings in response to the lawsuit by the time of writing.

From France to États Unis

The dispute over the domain originally arose in the French courts and had nothing to do with the French government. French legal news website Legalis's summary (en Anglais, courtesy Google Translate) of the case says that France.com's operators noticed a Dutch firm, Traveland Resorts, had filed a trademark application for france.com. Frydman then sued to stop that happening and in 2014 the trademarks were transferred by what appeared to be mutual agreement to France.com Inc.

This did not go unnoticed by France. In April 2015, it was reported, "the French State and the GIE Atout France [the French state-run tourism development agency] voluntarily intervened in the procedure to make note in particular the violation of the rights of the French State on the name of its territory by the company Traveland Resorts and obtain the transfer to its profit from the marks at issue, as well as the infringement of its rights by France.com Inc and obtain the transfer of the domain name, or alternatively a prohibition to dismiss, in addition to the finding of acts of unfair competition committed to the detriment of GIE Atout France."

The Tribunal de Grande Instance of Paris then ordered France.com Inc to give the French state all of its trademarks, and specifically, the domain name – "under penalty of 150 euros per day of delay" (£132 at current rates).

Frydman's France.com Inc has previously won awards from the Atout France for his work promoting France to American tourists. The Register will be watching the case with interest. ®

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