Righthaven seeks domain name transfer – relief that is not called for under the Copyright Act

Tactics suggest overreaching on more than just copyright grounds.

News broke over the Labor Day weekend that Righthaven, that enterprise set up to file copyright lawsuits over alleged infringements of articles from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, sued Nevada senate candidate Sharron Angle. The complaint [PDF] contains two claims for copyright infringement over allegations that Angle posted two articles on her website without authorization.

Let’s set aside for a moment any objections or snickering we might have about Righthaven’s approach, or any disdain we may feel about spamigation in general. There’s one paragraph in the Angle complaint which demonstrates a plaintiff mindset that is over the top on just about any reasonable scale.

In addition to the ususal demands for copyright infringement relief in the complaint (e.g., statutory damages, costs, attorney’s fees, injunction, etc.), Righthaven asks that the court:

[d]irect the current domain name registrar, Namesecure, and any successor domain name registrar for the Domain to lock the Domain and transfer control of the Domain to Righthaven.

Say what?

This is a copyright lawsuit, not one for trademark infringement or cybersquatting. Nothing in the Copyright Act provides the transfer of a domain name as a remedy. Such an order would be tantamount to handing the whole website over to Righthaven just because there may have been a couple of infringing items.

The Copyright Act does provide for the impounding and disposition of infringing articles (See 17 USC 503). So it’s plausible that a court would award the deletion of the actual alleged infringing articles. Or if it wanted to be weirdly and anachronistically quaint about it, could order that the infringing files on the server be removed and somehow destroyed in a way additional to just being deleted. In any event, there’s no basis for a court to order the transfer of a domain name as a result of copyright infringement.

I’ll let you, the reader, decide what you will about Righthaven. But if you decide that their tactics are silly, and in some cases uncalled-for, you won’t be alone.

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Trademark holder not entitled to domain name registered years before

Arizona State Trailer Sales, Inc. d/b/a Little Dealer Little Prices RV v. World Wide RV, No. FA1003001315658 (Nat’l Arb. Forum, May 7, 2010)

Startups in the process of selecting a company or product name are often frustrated to see that someone else, years ago, registered the .com version of their newly thought-of name. Similarly, companies that have acquired a trademark registration wonder whether they can use their crisp new registration certificate to stomp out someone else who has been using a domain name similar to the company’s new mark.

A recent case arising under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP for short) shows us that the earlier domain name registration is usually going to be on solid ground against a later-arriving trademark owner.

In the case of Arizona State Trailer Sales, Inc. d/b/a Little Dealer Little Prices RV v. World Wide RV, a National Arbitration Forum panelist denied the trademark owner’s cybersquatting claim against another company who had registered the domain name version of the trademark in 2006.

To be successful under the UDRP, the complainant would have had to show:

  • the domain name registered by the respondent was identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark in which the complainint had rights;
  • the respondent had no rights or legitimate interests in respect of the domain name; and
  • the domain name had been registered and was being used in bad faith.

The complaint failed on the first of these three elements. The panel found that the requirement of being identical or confusingly similiar “necessarily implies that Complainant’s rights must predate the registration of Registrant’s domain name.” Since the domain name in this case was registered years before, there was no relief to be had. The request to transfer the domain name was denied.

UDRP loser did not commit fraud on USPTO by saying it was exclusive user of mark

Salu, Inc. v. Original Skin Store, Slip Copy, 2010 WL 1444617 (E.D.Cal. April 12, 2010)

This is kind of a wonky trademark/domain name case. So if that’s not in your wheelhouse, don’t strain yourself.

Plaintiff sued defendant for infringement of plaintiff’s registered trademark. Defendant moved for summary judgment, claiming that the asserted trademark registration was obtained by fraud on the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Specifically, defendant argued that plaintiff misrepresented when it told the USPTO that its SKINSTORE mark had “acquired distinctiveness” (i.e., was not merely descriptive of the goods and servcies) by means of “substantially exclusive” use in commerce.

The court denied the motion for summary judgment.

Defendant had argued that plaintiff committed fraud by saying its use was exclusive. It pointed to a case under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) that the plaintiff had brought against the user of the domain name eskinstore.com. The WIPO panel in that case refused to find a clear case of cybersquatting.

In this case, defendant argued that plaintiff’s earlier unsuccessful UDRP challenge to a similar mark showed there were third parties using the mark and therefore the claim of exclusivity was fraudulent.

The court rejected this argument, noting that the plaintiff had undertaken significant efforts to protect its exclusive rights in the trademark. (It had sent out an astounding 300 cease and desist letters in the past couple of years alone!)

Moreover, and more importantly, the court noted that the WIPO panel hearing the UDRP complaint specifically declined to determine cybersquatting had occurred, finding it to be a question of infringement better addressed by the United States courts.

Kentucky Supreme Court: gambling domain names did not have standing

Com. ex rel. Brown v. Interactive Media Entertainment and Gaming Ass’n, Inc., — S.W.3d —, 2010 WL 997104 (Ky. March 18, 2010)

Back in 2008 the Commonwealth of Kentucky took an extraordinary step in its battle against online gambling. It filed an action in state court seeking to take over 141 domain names that the Commonwealth believed were used for illegal gambling sites. The trial court ordered forfeiture of the domain names.

Kentucky

Lawyers arguing against the forfeiture of the domain names sought a “writ of prohibition” from the appellate court, asking that court to prevent the forfeiture of the domain names. The lawyers appearing before the appellate court fell into two categories: those purporting to actually represent certain domain names (not the domain names’ owners) and those representing gambling trade associations whose members purportedly included some of the registrants of the affected domain names.

The appellate court granted the writ of prohibition. The Commonwealth sought review with the state supreme court. The supreme court dismissed the writ because those arguing against it lacked standing.

Who’s interest was at stake?

The court noted that only a party with a “judicially recognized interest” could challenge the forfeiture of the domain names. The court rejected the notion that the domain names could represent themselves:

An internet domain name does not have an interest in itself any more than a piece of land is interested in its own use. Just as with real property, a domain name cannot own itself; it must be owned by a person or legally recognized entity.

As for the gambling associations, the court held that there could be no “associational standing” because none of the associations would identify any of their members. Associational standing is when an organization (say, for example, the NAACP or a labor union) files suit on behalf of its members. One of the fundamental requirements of associational standing a showing that members of the association would have the right to sue in their individual capacities. Since there was no evidence as to whose interests the associations represented, there was no basis to conclude that the associations’ members would have standing to sue in their own right.

So the court sent the matter back down to the appellate court with orders to vacate the writ of prohibition. But the supreme court also hinted that those affected by the forfeiture could get another bite at the apple: “If a party that can properly establish standing comes forward, the writ petition giving rise to these proceedings could be re-filed with the Court of Appeals.” One would think that at least one brave soul will step forward. Some in the industry seem to hope so.

Other accounts of this story:

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