Evidence of intentional copying of domain name gives rise to presumption of trademark distinctiveness

Plaintiff Fryer sued his former employee, Bernie Brown (no relation to the author of this weblog), after Brown set up a website for his new competing auto upholstery business. Since 2000, Fryer had maintained the website located at autoupholsterykits.com. In 2002, Brown set up his website at autoupholsterykit.com.

Fryer’s suit alleged, among other things, violation of the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (“ACPA”), 15 U.S.C. §1125(d). In a motion for summary judgment, Brown argued that the domain name autoupholsterykits.com was a generic term, and thus not subject to trademark protection. He argued in the alternative that if it was not a generic term, it was at least a descriptive term without secondary meaning.

The court denied the motion for summary judgment as to the ACPA claim, holding that the domain name was a distinctive trademark and subject to protection against infringement. The court did some interesting maneuvering, however, to reach this conclusion. In essence, it avoided the real question of whether the domain name may actually be a generic term or merely describe the goods provided. Instead, the court looked to evidence of intentional copying of the plaintiff’s domain name by the defendant.

In so many words, the court conceded that an analysis of the domain name vis-à-vis the goods provided in connection therewith would be like stepping into a quagmire: “The distinctions between generic and descriptive and descriptive and suggestive are often illusory. Accordingly, the Court relies upon the link between the mark’s secondary meaning and the likelihood of confusion as critical.”

So the court analyzed the relationship of intentional copying of plaintiff’s domain name to both the likelihood of confusion and secondary meaning. It noted that “[w]hen intentional copying is at issue, the court may presume the likelihood of confusion.” Further, the court noted that “evidence of deliberate copying establishes a prima facie case of secondary meaning.”

Accordingly, the court denied summary judgment where there were factual issues relating to whether the defendant had intentionally copied the domain name.

Fryer v. Brown, 2005 WL 1677940 (W.D.Wash., Jul 15, 2005).