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.web lawsuit thrown out of court, “too generic” to be a trademark

Kevin Murphy, February 8, 2013, Domain Registries

A California lawsuit that threatened to scupper all seven applications for the .web new gTLD has been thrown out.

The judge in Image Online Design v ICANN yesterday granted ICANN’s motion to dismiss the case, saying that IOD had no claim for breach of contract and, significantly, that “.web” is too generic to be a trademark.

Here’s the money quote:

This court agrees with ICANN that the mark .WEB used in relation to Internet registry services is generic and cannot enjoy trademark protection.

IOD applied for .web during ICANN’s proof-of-concept new gTLD round in 2000, but was not approved.

It sued ICANN last October, claiming breach of contract and trademark infringement and interference with its business.

The company has been running .web in an alternate DNS root, where hardly anyone uses it, since the 1990s.

Unfortunately for IOD, when it applied in 2000 it signed a document releasing ICANN from all legal liability in relation to the application, so the judge yesterday ruled that it could not sue for breach of contract.

The court also upheld the longstanding position of the US courts that top-level domains cannot be trademarks.

The US Patent & Trademark Office is of the view that TLDs do not indicate the source of goods or services; only the second-level domain does.

IOD had argued in court that, with the imminent introduction of dot-brands, the USPTO expects to modify its position. The judge in this case, Dean Pregerson, agreed in part, stating:

For instance, if ICANN were to introduce the TLD .APPLE, the user would arguably expect that that TLD is administered by Apple Inc. In such a case, the TLD might be considered a source indicator. If Sony tried to administer the TLD .APPLE, Apple Inc. would likely argue and possibly prevail on a trademark infringement claim.

This said, it appears to the court that today only the most famous of marks could have a source indicating function as a TLD. Some marks, such as .WEB, might remain generic even if they were famous, since .WEB in connection with registry services for the World Wide Web appears to refer to the service offered, rather than to only a particular producer’s registry service.

the mark .WEB is not protectable under traditional trademark analysis because it “seems to represent a genus of a type of website” and thus answers the question “What are you?” rather than “Who vouches for you?”

IOD’s other claims were also thrown out. Read the court’s order here.

The ruling means that a similar lawsuit filed by fellow 2000-round new gTLD applicant Name.Space, which is looking for an injunction against 189 gTLD applications, may be on shaky ground too.

Senior Demand Media exec “fired for suing ICANN”

Kevin Murphy, December 3, 2012, Domain Registrars

Long-time Demand Media software architect Chris Ambler claims he was fired when his own company, Image Online Design, sued ICANN over the .web gTLD.

Ambler says he was canned by Demand October 26, eight days after IOD sued ICANN over its unsuccessful 2000-round application for .web.

He told DI on Friday that he believes he was fired unfairly and illegally and, after negotiations with Demand Media broke down last week, has retained a lawyer to explore his options for redress.

“You can’t say you’re firing somebody because they’re suing somebody,” he said. “There are legal options open to me and I am pursuing them.”

Ambler says he was hired by eNom’s then-CEO Paul Stahura in 2003 as its chief software strategist, a role in which he took a lead role in creating NameJet’s proprietary domain name drop-catching software.

When the company was acquired by Demand Media, he took the role of senior software architect.

But in the 1990s, as founder of IOD, he ran .web in an alternative DNS root system. His application to move the gTLD into the official ICANN root in 2000 was not approved.

In October he sued ICANN claiming it was “improper, unlawful and inequitable” for ICANN to solicit more applications for .web while IOD’s bid was still “pending” and unrejected.

While Demand Media is not directly applying for .web, it has an extremely tight relationship with Donuts — the portfolio gTLD applicant founded by Stahura and other former Demand executives — which is.

Demand is Donuts’ back-end registry provider and is believed to have an interest in Covered TLD LLC, the parent company of about 100 of Donuts’ new gTLD applicants, including .web.

Ambler’s contract with Demand Media acknowledged his IOD work and allowed him to pursue it, he claims.

“They’ve known for the past ten years that I was working on this,” he said.

A Demand Media spokesperson said the company does not comment on legal matters.

Original .web gTLD applicant sues ICANN

Kevin Murphy, October 18, 2012, Domain Registries

Image Online Design, which unsuccessfully applied for the .web gTLD all the way back in 2000, has sued ICANN, alleging trademark infringement and breach of contract.

IOD, which says it has over 20,000 .web domains under management in an alternate root, says ICANN never officially rejected its .web bid, and that it should not have allowed other companies to apply for it.

It’s looking for an injunction preventing ICANN awarding .web to any other company, as well as seeking ICANN’s “profits” resulting from the alleged infringement of its mark.

There are seven .web applicants in the current round, but IOD is not among them.

The company paid $50,000 for its application in 2000, but it’s not happy with the $86,000 discount ICANN offered 2000-round applicants on their $185,000 fees if they wanted to resubmit their applications.

The IOD complaint claims:

Allowing other entities to file applications for a .web TLD while IOD’s .WEB TLD application was still pending is improper, unlawful and inequitable.

The complaint cites the November 2000 ICANN meeting in Marina Del Rey, during which the first proof-of-concept gTLDs were approved by ICANN’s board of directors.

It notes that then-chair Vint Cerf steered the board away from approving .web applications filed by Afilias and others because IOD was already operating .web in an alternate root at the time.

You can watch a video of that meeting here.

The complaint also alleges tenuous conflicts of interest between two .web applicants (Afilias and Google) and members of ICANN’s board of directors (current chair and vice-chair Steve Crocker and Bruce Tonkin in the case of Afilias, and long-gone chair Vint Cerf in the case of Google).

The suit comes just a few days after IOD’s fellow 2000 applicant and alternate root player, Name.Space, sued ICANN on similar grounds, trying to prevent 189 gTLDs being approved.

Here’s the IOD complaint.