Report From an Energized WIPO Conference in Geneva
Each October, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a United Nations agency, hosts at its Geneva, Switzerland, headquarters about 50 participants from around the world for a two-day conclave to discuss recent developments and issues surrounding domain name trademark disputes. This conference brings together, in one place (as an added bonus, scenically overlooking Lake Geneva and the French Alps) representatives of domain name registrars and registries, and lawyers from every corner of the globe to discuss the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP), which governs disputes between domain name registrants and trademark owners in most generic top-level domains (gTLDs).
With ICANN’s roll-out of new gTLDs imminent, the UDRP is likely about to experience increased use and importance, as cybersquatters will doubtless target brand owners whenever and wherever possible in the new gTLDs.
The UDRP is not without its faults — but, in general, it provides brand owners with a fast, relatively inexpensive and effective means to shut down domain names that are registered to take advantage of the goodwill attached to their trademarks. At this year’s conference, as with those in years past, the most hotly contested issues involve domain names that resolve to “criticism” websites. It is with these issues that legal and cultural differences on the borderless Internet intersect and conflict. Many (but certainly not all) representatives from the United States see these issues through the lens of freedom of speech, while participants from elsewhere have no such point of reference. These cases come in two basic flavors.
First, there are the “trademark sucks” sorts of cases (the ubiquitous “suck sites”), and second, there is the more harmful “trademark.com” cases, which then resolve to a site critical of the trademark owner.
Suck site cases are less harmful because there is less risk of initial interest confusion – the likelihood that an Internet user would type the name into his or her browser thinking that the site belonged to the trademark owner. But in this era of the Internet in which search engines drive a great deal of traffic, such sites can cause great harm. However, a small consensus seems to lean toward finding that such domain names are not infringing.
The more hotly contested issue continues to be the trademark.com (including typos, hyphenations and other close variants of the trademark) cases. First Amendment considerations make it very difficult for a trademark owner to retrieve these domain names, when used for noncommercial purposes, in U.S. courts; in other parts of the world, this is not the case. But one UDRP panelist from the United States pointed out that the UDRP process is not a governmental act, and therefore he believes (correctly, I think) that the UDRP should pay no heed to these considerations. At bottom, U.S. trademark owners facing such situations should consider pursuing UDRP cases, understanding that even if they prevail, if the case ultimately lands in court, the likelihood of a successful outcome is diminished.
Other topics discussed included the new proposals for Rights Protection Mechanisms (RPMs) associated with the new gTLDs. While many of these RPMs remain in the discussion stages, they promise to bring to the fore new opportunities for trademark owners to protect their trademarks against cybersquatters who begin infringing in the new gTLD space. A good summary of all of the RPMs can be found here. The most interesting among these is the proposed Uniform Rapid Suspension System, which may bring about a means to temporarily suspend a name (that is, redirect the domain name to a web page revealing the suspension) in an expedited fashion. The devil will be in the details, as the costs and specifics of the proposed program are still up in the air. ICANN, WIPO and the other stakeholders are working on the details, and if implemented, this has the potential to provide trademark owners with another tool to combat those who damage their brands.
WIPO’s conferences are always first class and informative, and the opportunity to hear from and confer with talented, knowledgeable (and opinionated) domain name lawyers from around the world is always a pleasure and a privilege. I was able to meet and work with people from all over the world –from a representative of the Tanzanian registry, to brand managers from Sweden, to IP lawyers from China and Taiwan. And from it, we all are better able to serve our clients who do business on the Internet, which knows no national boundaries.