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Last Updated: Friday, 22 April, 2005, 16:25 GMT 17:25 UK
iTunes domain name battle
Dan Simmons
By Dan Simmons
Reporter, BBC Click Online

It is said possession is nine-tenths of the law - but that is not necessarily so in the world of websites. Dan Simmons reports on why simply owning a web address does not necessarily mean you can keep it.

URL of www.itunes.co.uk
When Ben Cohen registered the URL, Apple's iTunes did not exist

A name is one of the most valuable assets a person or business can have.

So when entrepreneurs started buying up famous names as website addresses, there were many objections.

People and organisations, such as Madonna, won control of the sites bearing their names, and the so-called cybersquatters were moved on.

But what happens when someone buys a name which only later becomes famous?

22-year-old Benjamin Cohen is no stranger to the internet. At the age of 17 he became a dotcom millionaire after setting up several popular websites from his bedroom.

He hoped iTunes.co.uk would be one of them.

He explained: "My company registered about 200 names during the dotcom boom, and we did operate a music download service and a music search engine. Itunes.co.uk was going to be part of a network of music download websites.

"Apple's iTunes didn't exist when I registered the website."

Benjamin Cohen
Ben believed his iTunes domain name was worth at least 50,000
A year later, computer giant Apple launched the iPod, and two years after that, in 2003, a music download website they called iTunes.

Apple was soon selling thousands of songs daily. The company decided to contact Ben and make him an offer.

He says: "They said 'we'll give you $5,000 (around 2,600) for it' and I said 'no'. They went away and said 'is there a figure you think is appropriate?'

"Our response was: 'we'd be looking at at least 50,000'. We think the name's worth at least that."

Apple was not impressed and filed a complaint.


There are four millions domain names with UK in the title, and all of them are registered by a private firm called Nominet.

For 5 anyone can register a UK domain name on a first-come, first-served basis.

The company has another important role: it resolves any disputes when there is a fight.

Nominet deals with around 60 disputes a month. Most are settled through a free mediation service it offers but some, like the Apple case, go on to be determined by an independent expert appointed by the firm.

Emily Taylor, Nominet's legal director, says: "In the vast majority of cases it is as straightforward as who gets there first. It really is. In a tiny minority of cases a dispute arises.

"The community wanted us to do something to assist people who maybe couldn't afford to go off to court."

Rights or responsibilities?

Apple was not just after the iTunes UK address for extra sales.

Shortly after registering the site Ben stopped the music service he had planned for it. For several years the web address either did not work, or redirected visitors to a shopping site Ben ran.

A domain name carries with it a series of obligations
Emily Taylor, Nominet
He says: "I don't think it's confusing users. If a user went to that site and was expecting Apple and doesn't see then they'll go to a search engine and type in the appropriate keywords and I'm sure they'll find the Apple site eventually."

And even though people may find this inconvenient, Ben believes: "It's not my concern to act as a roadmap for internet users."

What really got Apple worried was when Ben began sending his visitors to Napster, Apple's competitor.

Apple asked Ben to stop the link to Napster. He agreed.

Then he offered to sell his iTunes domain name to Napster. Napster declined.

He says: "We decided to offer it to Napster because it seemed like a logical company that would be interested in a music search engine website address.

"We would have profited from the sale of an asset to a competitor of Apple, but that's not something that's prohibited by any rules."

Continuing dispute

Nominet has a different view, as Emily Taylor explains.

Technology journalist Tim Phillips
We have to know that the site is what it says it is
Tim Phillips, technology journalist

"A domain name is not something like a house or a pair of shoes that you just buy and that's it, it's yours, you do what you like with it.

"A domain name is actually a contract, in legal terms. It carries with it a series of obligations.

"In a tiny minority of cases the registrant will use the domain name in a way that steps all over the rights of somebody else. That is where the dispute resolution service kicks in."

Last month Nominet's independent expert, Claire Milne, ordered that iTunes.co.uk be handed over to Apple.

But Britain's first teenage dotcom millionaire is not only planning to challenge the Apple decision at the High Court, but also Nominet's right to tell him what to do.

Ben thinks an elected government body should decide, and wants to challenge Nominet's authority in the courts.

Apple declined to be interviewed or make any statement to us about this case.

Nominet insists its processes are fair and democratic. Last week it handed over control of the website to Apple, which is expected to use the address for its iTunes brand.

Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

Legal row over iTunes domain name
28 Mar 05 |  Technology

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