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Monday, 15 November, 1999, 11:01 GMT
Cybersquatting: Get off my URL

Any half-seasoned internet user knows the value of a good domain name. You can probably guess it rather than resort to a search engine, and a snappy URL sticks in the memory.

E-cyclopedia
Think: news.com, sainsburys.co.uk, buy.com, greenpeace.org.uk. Simple, straightforward, memorable.

With scores of competing websites available at the touch of a few keystrokes, it's hard to underestimate the value of a bite-sized, self-explanatory domain name.

But in cyberspace, as with the real world, a good address is highly sought after and does not come cheap.

Hence cybersquatting - occupying a web address which might rightly belong to someone else.

Harrods, the famous London department store, is one former victim of cybersquatting.

The historic store this week launches a global online shopping site at the address harrods.com, but only after evicting a band of cybersquatters through the courts.

The appendage, or "level" in a URL, such as .com or .co.uk, is, like a respectable postcode, all part of the value.

Clearly Harrods, which in the real world occupies the classy London postcode of SW1, agreed.


In the parlance of a slick estate agent, ".com" would be a highly desirable, cosmopolitan, central London neighbourhood (Knightsbridge or Mayfair) while ".org", which is for charities, would still be sought-after but more worthy than ostentatious.

The ".co.uk" used by many British-based business has allure but, denoting as it does solely British companies, it might seem a tad parochial.

Meanwhile, a snappy suffix such as ".net" is very much up and coming. The Bermondsey of cyberspace, if you will.

In the US, the value of a web address has been rigorously tested.

The BBC recently spent a considerable sum on buying the address bbc.com from Boston Business Computing. In 1997 a Texas-based company paid $150,000 for the generic URL business.com.

But this pales in comparison to the rumoured $3.3m shelled out by Compaq for altavista.com. Previously the address of its Altavista search engine had been altavista.digital.com.


Yet in none of these three instances was cybersquatting the main issue. The initial domain owner legally sold their web address on.

Anyone can register a domain name, as long as it has not already been taken. The cost varies, but is generally no more than 100 plus an annual rental fee, irrespective of how "good" it is.

Purchase is usually managed by an online agent which acts for a registry. The biggest registry is Network Solutions Inc which handles all URLs ending in .com, .org and .net.

In Britain, names ending in .co.uk, .org.uk and .net.uk are sold on a first-come, first served basis by the non-profit making Nominet.

Dispute over confusion

Problems only arise when a late-comer disputes the original owner's right to the address.

"The most common complaint is on the grounds of confusion," says Anna Bishop, a spokeswoman for Nominet, which operates an arbitration service for just such events.

"If you have registered a URL with the name that is the trademark of another company, and you've made your site look like theirs then [the challenger] has a good chance of winning it back."

She cites the "One in a Million" case in which a group called One in a Million lost a court battle after registering the names of several well-known names. These included ladbrokes.com, burger-king.com, buckinghampalace.org and cellnet.net.

Last month in America, the Senate passed a bill to outlaw cybersquatting, with a $100,000 fine for registering an internet name in "bad faith".

In Britain, the picture is more confused when both have a "good claim", says Ms Bishop, citing the example of when a corner shop legally trades under the same name as a multi-national conglomeration.

And in the case of a highly generic name, eg: theshoeshop.co.uk, the principle of first-come, first-served is likely to win through says Ms Bishop, since there is no trademark at issue.


The E-cyclopedia can be contacted at e-cyclopedia@bbc.co.uk

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See also:

30 Jul 99 | The Company File
EU Internet address inquiry
26 Nov 98 | Sci/Tech
US approves new Internet authority
01 Oct 98 | Sci/Tech
Domain name row heads for overtime
05 Jun 98 | Sci/Tech
Vying for a name in cyberspace
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