Five years ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) filed suit against GoDaddy.com.
GoDaddy allows customers to buy domains and “park” them. Parking them means that the domain points to a web page that has advertisements on them from Google.
When clicked, the owner of the web page gets a portion of that ad revenue. When the page is parked using GoDaddy, both the owner of the page and GoDaddy split the ad revenue.
AMPAS owns The Oscars. It’s website is registered to the domain oscars.com. But someone else registered “theoscars.com” and was holding it ransom. This is sometimes called cyber-squatting; but it is legal in most cases.
Usually, in this situation, someone in AMPAS’s shoes would pay tens of thousands of dollars to recover “theoscars.com” from the registered owner. Or, they would ignore it.
Unfortunately for AMPAS, they are suffering from 56 Oscar-related parked domains. These domains include 2011Oscars.com, Oscar4re.com and Oscarcam.com.
So AMPAS sued GoDaddy. AMPAS claimed that GoDaddy pocketed roughly $90 million in revenue just from their parked pages directed at The Oscars alone. To put this in perspective, GoDaddy annually generates a revenue over $1 billion dollars. If AMPAS wins, that would be nearly 10% of GoDaddy’s annual revenue in damages. That’s a lot of ad clicks.
While this case may seem like it is the fighting of giants and unrelated to the rest of us, that is not so. The ruling could seriously impact millions of business owners. Here’s how:
- You may now have recourse if you found out that someone was using a domain name that is similar to your trademarked name. Should you sue?
- GoDaddy’s business would take a crippling hit, possibly scuppering it and the millions of websites it serves. At the very least, expect prices to go up.
- GoDaddy and other domain registrars may become forced to police trademark violations by registrants, which means more work for all of us.
- If you own trademarks, you may be required to put in claims on domains in order to keep your marks protected (and not considered “abandoned”).
- The cyber-squatting industry may die. But more likely, it will continue overseas, outside the jurisdiction of the United States. This will make American companies like GoDaddy suffer, as it will put them at a competitive disadvantage.
Domain hijacking is a common problem that most business owners deal with. If you’ve registered a domain recently, you probably noticed spam that came a few days later trying to sell you similar domain names.
For example, our CEO is publishing a book on election law for third parties titled Just Pursuits. We put up a sales page at JustPursuits.com. About a week later, we were hit with a demand to pay thousands of dollars for “justpursuit.com” (the s is dropped off the end).
In more serious cases, someone will put up a malicious page to try and force you to buy the domain. This happens to celebrities and politicians a lot. For example, Carly Fiorina (former CEO of Hewlett Packard who is running for President) got this gem: CarlyFiorina.org. (Not only are different spellings a problems, the top-level domain suffix like .com, .net, and .org can create problems.)
By the way, only non-profits are supposed to register .org domains. But this is not policed, really.
Ms. Fiorina’s .org spoof page isn’t too bad. There are worse ones depicting pornography, foul language, or other scurrilous materials.
If you haven’t experienced this, try typing in your domain name with minor changes and see what comes up. Are there other sites out there with similar names to your own? If there are, this case means a great deal for you.
Given the impact this case will have on how it does business, GoDaddy has gone through trial in this case. A verdict is still pending.
GoDaddy has not played nice during the lawsuit, either. For example, GoDaddy accused AMPAS of rigging the court system to have U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins, whose daughter is a professional actress, oversee all of the GoDaddy cases. The Honorable Collins has made some decisions that were unfavorable to GoDaddy. GoDaddy got “bench slapped” for that one, but ultimately achieved a new judge assignment.
But both sides know what is at stake. AMPAS says that it seeks to establish cybersquatting as a “serious problem that should not be tolerated even if it is being perpetrated by a company that generates over a billion dollars in revenue….”
For its part, GoDaddy says that the guns are aimed at the wrong target. “GoDaddy is not a cybersquatter. It is not a pirate,” its attorney said in opening statements at trial. And GoDaddy also tried to help AMPAS. Within three days after receiving AMPAS’s complaint about parked pages, GoDaddy redirected 37 domain names to no-ads templates. Given the current state of domain registration governance (something controlled by an international body), this may have been the best that GoDaddy could do for AMPAS.
While we await the verdict on this matter, it important to realize that it may have serious implications for us all. Currently, there is no solid law on what to do about cyber-squatters and parked pages. The legal system has simply not caught up with this issue.
There are dozens of conflicting interests at stake when it comes to domains and cybersquatting. This is an issue that impacts small and big business and even international relations.
Companies who feel their trademarks rights are being violated by parked domains have limited options, such as complaining to the domain holder, registering their page with an organization seeking to block parked pages or attempting to purchase all similar domain names so no one else may register them. Many businesses may find themselves playing a frustrating game of whack-a-mole.
We will update you with the verdict and its implications after it is reached and as the law on this evolves.
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