In a country obsessed with Lockean philosophy, it makes sense that most Americans associate the idea of property
with natural rights, labor and capitalism.
During the Internet Age, however, property and the related idea of intellectual property are increasingly confounded by legal questions concerning Internet domains.
In fact, both the U.S. legal system and The Patent and Trademark Office have shown inconsistency in their response to the question: Who owns a name?
A trademark is “a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of them” that uniquely distinguishes itself and its product to consumers.
This includes names of people or companies
like Louis Vuitton, logos and symbols like the Temple Owl and even sounds such as the KYW News’ music intro.
Trademark infringement is a serious federal offense that has been exacerbated by the ability of any individual, at the expense of only a few dollars, to register a domain name via the Internet.
Courts across the country have ruled that the use of trademarks as domain names are generally protected from confusion, dilution and cybersquatting.
The government describes cybersquatting as the abusive registration of domain names with the intent of profiting off another’s trademark. This is probably the most pervasive issue plaguing Internet governance.
People who “cybersquat” often use a trademark name with intent to profit and then try to sell the domain to the mark owner for an inflated sum of money. This has happened to big names like Julia Roberts, Bruce Springsteen, the animal rights organization PETA and the financial institution Paine Webber.
While cybersquatting is an acknowledged problem, the legal system and trademark owners have responded in an overly zealous way. People who own trademarks do have justifiable rights to that trademark on the Internet, but to what extent does a person own a name?
Every celebrity could begin patenting their name. McDonald’s could patent the world PlayPlace just because that’s the name given to their playground. A famous quote from a movie could be trademarked and restricted from all dot-com addresses.
There has to be a fine line between commercial exploitation and the freedom and creativity of information on the Internet. Recently, Morgan Freeman won the rights to his name when a commercial engine Mighty LLC was deceptively using the name morganfreeman.com to attract business to its site. Now if fans wanted to devote a site to the movie star, Freeman could theoretically bring a case of trademark dilution against them.
To provide trademark owners with legal equipment, Congress passed the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act that allows an owner to sue, collect for damages and recover
a domain from someone who has used it in bad faith.
This could either represent ground-breaking legislation governing intellectual property, or it could represent a Pandora’s box of domain litigation. Either way, don’t be surprised if the majority of legal cases applying this law end up being celebrity mothers trademarking the names of their babies.
If Gwyneth Paltrow went up against Apple for misrepresenting or profiting from her daughter’s name, for instance, there’s no doubt who would win. After all, intellectual property is defined as the fruit of one’s labor.
Erin Cusack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.