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Poaching on fame

Well-versed attorneys may win you cases like this, but after a lot of hassle. Cybersqautting ' occupying a web address which belongs to someone else ' is not an uncommon word these days and people fighting for their own ‘place’ in the World Wide Web are winning legal cases against it. So did Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman, taking control of the website www.morganfreeman.com, in a ruling issued last week by a United Nations panel, World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).

The website had been registered and operated by a Saint Kitts and Nevis-based operator, Mighty LLC, “in bad faith to divert Internet traffic to a commercial search engine”. The ruling says the operator misused Freeman’s trademark creating a “likelihood of confusion”, as to whether Freeman authorised the website.

Any half-seasoned Internet user knows the value of a simple, straightforward, memorable domain name or uniform resource locator or URL. In cyber-space, as in the real world, a good address is highly sought after and does not come cheap. And there lies the target of the cybersquatters ' someone who registers the names of famous people or companies and hawks them around their rightful owner for a fat fee.

Here no one goes through the checkposts of authentication while acquiring a domain name. Anyone can register a URL for a few dollars on a first-come, first served basis, which has led to the birth of cybersquatters. Celebrities (like Julia Roberts and Madonna, to name two) and big corporate houses (like Christian Dior, Harrods, and Nike) have fallen prey to this clever business model and got their own web address only after evicting a band of cybersquatters through the courts. It is all in tapping big names before they think themselves big enough to build a webpage in their name. And if anyone doesn’t have his or her trademark right, unlike Freeman, the trouble surely becomes manifold.

When questioned, a cybersquatter’s common answer sounds like the one Mighty LLC responded to Freeman’s counsel: “Your client is not the only Morgan Freeman.”

The audacity of cybersquatters is thus burgeoning. And why not' Citing innocent explanation like “under construction” on the website, one can hold on to a domain name for two years. So the fact that a website is not up and running, even months after the name was reserved or registered, does not mean that the registrant doesn’t have an honest plan. This encourages cybersquatting through holding hundreds of URLs for nothing.

To stop this free-for-all nuisance, accountability must be ensured right from its source during webpage reservation. Till date, the value of a web address is rigorously tested only in the US under a 1999 federal law known as the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act. The UN arbitration system also allows a free and fast-track legal procedure. Trademark infringement is bound to proliferate globally and national legislation is no effective solution. But the international cyber law ' keeping tab on the Internet’s boundless ‘territory’ ' is not showing healthy growth as a whole.

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