The World Intellectual Property Organization is trumpeting its success at stamping out rogue Internet sites that poach other companies' brand names. Now the organization is moving on to the thornier task of intervening on behalf of owners of names that are not necessarily registered trademarks.
Anyone with access to the Web can register a domain name - as long as it hasn't already been claimed - for a small fee. As the Internet has become a profit center, "cybersquatters" have swooped in on unregistered famous names, often hoping to make a profit.
Since December 1999, WIPO has administered an online process by which copyright holders can request arbitration if they believe someone else has wrongfully registered their name. WIPO arbitrators have handed down decisions on 345 domain names, from alcoholicsanonymous.net to worldwrestlingfederation.com. Under an arrangement with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the losing party has 10 days to respond to the arbitrators' decision, then ICANN-authorized registrars automatically transfer the domain to the winner.
Now WIPO will try to help sort out who has the right to use personal names, commonly used commercial terms or geographical names. Cases currently under review include barcelona.com, courses.com and jimihendrix.com. Also slated for oversight are pharmaceutical names like diazepam or minoxidil (generic terms for patented drugs like Valium and Rogaine), which under World Health Organization rules cannot be copyrighted but which previously were up for grabs online.
WIPO, which acts on behalf of its member states, took up the charge for a broader mandate at the request of a group of countries led by Australia and including the European Union and the U.S. WIPO has slated a nine-month public comment period before it lays down the law on how to decide tough questions, such as who can use the terms Bordeaux or Champagne.
"What we're looking for is a consensus; we're very open at this stage," said WIPO e-commerce specialist Lucinda Jones. "These are issues that need to be debated, and we need to get a sense of how the Internet community and the world community feels about this."
Currently, WIPO only handles the top-level domains .com, .net and .org. It has no authority to police names registered under country codes like .us (United States) or .uk (United Kingdom). But Jones said her organization is in talks with a number of countries about bringing their policies in line with WIPO's. And seven governments, all of them small island nations or territories, have placed their registries under WIPO's arbitration umbrella. Among them are Tuvalu, whose .tv code has plenty of abuse potential, as well as the New Zealand territory Niue, with the code .nu - which means naked in French. This has proved popular with pornographic sites.