Luxury watchmaker Cartier has taken .uk registry Nominet to court, hoping to set a precedent that would enable big brands to have domain names taken down at a whim.
The company sued Nominet in a London court in October, seeking an injunction to force the registry to take down 12 domain names that at the time led to sites allegedly selling counterfeit watches.
We’ve only become aware of the case today after Nominet revealed it has filed its defense documents.
Judging by documents attached to Nominet’s court filings, Cartier sees the suit as a test case that could allow it to bring similar suits against other “less cooperative” registries elsewhere in the world.
In a letter submitted as evidence as part of Nominet’s defense, Richard Graham, head of digital IP at Cartier parent company Richemont International, said that he was:
seeking to develop a range of tools that can be deployed quickly and efficiently to prevent Internet users accessing websites that offer counterfeit goods… [and] looking to establish a precedent that can be used to persuade courts in other jurisdictions where the registries are less cooperative.
It’s worth noting that Richemont has applied for 13 dot-brands under ICANN’s new gTLD program and that Graham is often the face of the applications at conferences and such.
Pretty soon Richemont will also be a domain name registry. We seem to be looking at two prongs of its brand protection strategy here.
According to the company’s suit, the 12 domains in question all had bogus Whois information and were all being used to sell bogus Cartier goods.
None of them used a Cartier trademark in the domain — this is explicitly about the contents of web sites, not their domains names — and Cartier says most appeared to be registered to people in China.
Rather than submitting a Whois inaccuracy complaint with Nominet — which could have led to the domains being suspended for a breach of the terms of service — Cartier decided to sue instead.
Cartier seems to have grown frustrated playing whack-a-mole with bootleggers who cannot be traced and just pop up somewhere else whenever their latest web host is persuaded to cut them off.
Graham’s letter, which comes across almost apologetic in its cordiality when compared to the usual legal threat, reads:
Cartier therefore believes the most cost effective and efficient way to disrupt access to the Counterfeiting Websites operating in the UK is to seek relief from you, as the body operating the registry of .uk domain names.
Armed with the foreknowledge provided by the letter, Nominet reviewed the Whois records of the domains in question, found them lacking, and suspended the lot.
Ten were suspended before Cartier sued, according to Nominet. Another expired before the suit was filed and was re-registered by a third party. A fourth, allegedly registered to a German whose scanned identity card was submitted as evidence by Nominet, was suspended earlier this month.
As such, much of Nominet’s defense (pdf) relies upon what seems to be a new and obscure legal guideline, the “Practice Direction on Pre-Action Conduct”, that encourages people to settle their differences without resorting to the courts.
Nominet’s basically saying that there was no need for Cartier to sue, because it already has procedures in place to deal with counterfeiters using fake Whois data.
Also offered in the defense are the facts that suspending a domain does not remove a web site, that Nominet does not operate web sites, and the following:
Nominet is not at liberty under its Terms and Conditions of Domain Name Registration to suspend .uk domain names summarily upon mere receipt of a demand from someone unconnected with the domain name registrant.
That seems to me to be among the most important parts of the defense.
If Cartier were to win this case, it may well set a precedent giving registries (in the UK at least, at first) good reason to cower when they receive dodgy take-down orders from multibillion-dollar brands.
Indeed, that seems to be what Cartier is going for here.
Unfortunately, Nominet has a track record of at least accelerating the takedown of domains based on nothing more than third-party “suspicion”. Its defense actually admits this fact, stating:
Inaccurate identity and contact information generally leads to the suspension of a domain within three weeks. Where suspicions of criminality are formally confirmed by a recognised law enforcement agency, suspension may be very significantly expedited.
I wonder if this lawsuit would have happened had Nominet not been so accommodating to unilateral third-party take-down notices in the past.
In a statement to members today, a copy of which was sent to DI, Nominet encouraged internet users to report counterfeiting web sites to the police if and when they find them.
Law enforcement agencies in the US and Europe have shut down 132 domain names in order to stop the selling of counterfeit merchandise online.
According to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, the now-annual Cyber Monday crackdown included domain names in the .eu, .be, .dk, .fr, .ro and .uk ccTLDs.
Law enforcement from those countries were involved, via Europol, in their respective local seizures, while ICE nabbed 101 domains in generic TLDs whose registries are based in the US.
One person was also arrested, and ICE plans to seize $175,000 in ill-gotten gains sent to a PayPal account connected with the sites.
It’s the third year in a row that ICE has led an operation of this kind before “Cyber Monday”, which in recent years has become the most popular day of the year for e-commerce deals.
The operation started when ICE and Europol “received leads from various trademark holders regarding the infringing websites”, ICE said in a press release.
The US Immigration & Customs Enforcement agency seems to be consolidating its portfolio of seized domain names by transferring them to its own registrar account.
Many domains ICE recently seized at the registry level under Operation “In Our Sites” have, as of yesterday, started naming the agency as the official registrant in the Whois database.
ICE, part of the Department of Homeland Security, has collected over 100 domains, most of them .coms, as part of the anti-counterfeiting operation it kicked off with gusto last November.
The domains all allegedly either promoted counterfeit physical goods or offered links to bootleg digital content.
At a technical level, ICE originally assumed control of the domains by instructing registries such as VeriSign, the .com operator, to change the authoritative name servers for each domain to seizedservers.com.
All the domains pointed to that server, which is controlled by ICE, resolve to a web server displaying the same image:
(The banner, incidentally, appears to have been updated this month. If clicked, it now sends visitors to this anti-piracy public service announcement hosted at YouTube.)
Until this week, the Whois record associated with each domain continued to list the original registrant – a great many of them apparently Chinese – but ICE now seems to be consolidating its portfolio.
As of yesterday, a sizable chunk — but by no means all — of the seized domains have been transferred to Network Solutions and now name ICE as the registrant in their Whois database records.
Rather than simply commandeering the domains, it appears that ICE now “owns” them too.
But ICE has already allowed one of its seizures to expire. The registration for silkscarf-shop.com expired in March, and it no longer points to seizedservers.com or displays the ICE piracy warning.
The domain is now listed in Redemption Period status, meaning it is starting along the road to ultimately dropping and becoming available for registration again.
Interestingly, most of the newly moved domains appear to have been transferred into NetSol from original registrars based in China, such as HiChina, Xin Net and dns.com.cn.
After consulting with a few people more intimately familiar with the grubby innards of the inter-registrar transfer process than I am, I understand that the names could have been moved without the explicit intervention of either registrar, but that it would not be entirely unprecedented if the transfers had been handled manually under the authority of a court order.
If I find out for sure, I’ll provide an update.
ICANN has declined an invitation from the Obama administration to attend a meeting tomorrow to discuss ways to crack down on counterfeit drugs web sites.
The meeting, first reported by Brian Krebs, was called with an August 13 invitation to “registries, registrars and ICANN” to meet at the White House to talk about “voluntary protocols to address the illegal sale of counterfeit non-controlled prescription medications on-line.”
It also follows a series of reports from security firms that called into question domain name registrars’ willingness to block domains that are used to sell fake pharma.
ICANN tells me that, following talks with White House Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator Victoria Espinel, it was agreed that it would “not be appropriate” for ICANN to attend.
The decision was based on the fact that ICANN’s job is to make policy covering internet names and addresses, and not to regulate the content of web sites.
ICANN’s vice president of government affairs for the Americas, Jamie Hedlund, said the meeting was “outside the scope of our role as the technical coordinator of the Internet’s unique identifiers.”
I suspect it also would not have looked great on the global stage if ICANN appeared to be taking its policy cues directly from the US government rather than through its Governmental Advisory Committee.
Demand Media-owned registrar eNom, which has took the brunt of the recent criticism of registrars, recently signed up to a service that will help it more easily identify and terminate domains used to sell counterfeit medicines.