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Internet Primer And Domain Name Disputes

Many topics that I discuss in these columns assume a certain basic knowledge of the Internet and its unique terminology. This week, I'm going to explain some of this techno-speak for the benefit of the uninitiated and then address issues concerning domain names (cnn.com is an example of a domain).

What is the Internet?

The Supreme Court recently defined the Net as simply "an international network of interconnected computers." It's really nothing more than a collection of thousands of networks linked by a common computer language or protocol-an agreed way for computers to talk to one another.

The Internet is an outgrowth of a military program started in 1969 called ARPAnet. It started as a way to maintain communication between computers operated by the military, defense contractors, and universities conducting defense-related research. They designed it to function even if an enemy destroyed portions of the network during a nuclear war. (And to think that I sometimes have trouble connecting to the Net on sunny days in Miami.)

The ARPAnet no longer exists, but it formed the basis for a civilian network that we now call the Internet.

What is the World Wide Web?

In the simplest terms, the World Wide Web is just a user-friendly way to access information on the Internet. It consists of many documents stored in different computers all over the world, which the Internet links.

On the Web, you won't need to know any cryptic computer commands. You'll navigate using a mouse, and if you find something interesting, you merely click on it and you're there.

When you're surfing the Web, you'll come across information about almost everything-topics like entertainment, business, music, computer programs, and sports. There's so much on the Web that when you are looking for something in particular, you'll probably use a "search engine" to help you find out where it is. My personal favorite is a search engine called Excite, which you can find at http://www.excite.com. Another popular one is AltaVista, at http://www.altavista.com.

Using a search engine is easy. You type a few key words relevant to what you're looking for and hit "enter." Within seconds, a list of related Web Sites appears, along with a few words about each Web Site. You just point and click on one that interests you, and you're there.

What is a domain name?

A domain name is an Internet address. What 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is to the mail and 1-800-CALL-ATT is to the telephone is what a domain name like whitehouse.gov is to the Internet.

It contains a few components. For example, my firm's domain name is ecomputerlaw.com. The "ecomputerlaw" part is called a second level domain, and it's registered with a company called Network Solutions, Inc (NSI). NSI is the most commonly used domain name registry in the United States, but only one of over 200 domain name registries around the world.

The "com" part is called a top-level domain, and it describes the purpose of whom or what owns the second level domain.

There are several top-level domains commonly used in the United States. They are each intended for a certain type of registration. For example, "com" is intended for commercial entities such as my law firm. "Edu" (as in mit.edu) is for 4-year colleges and universities. "Net" is intended for network provider computers like your Internet Service Provider who provides you with access to the Internet. "Gov" is used by the United States Federal government. "Mil" is used by the U.S. military.

First Come, First Served

The domain name system is largely a first come, first served system. The Internet-savvy know this and have already registered many generic names like doctor.com, lawyer.com and newspaper.com. I salute their foresight.

These generic domain names are important because many people skip going to a search engine and will simply type something generic like doctor.com into their Web browser to see what comes up. This means that these generic domains get people coming to their site by accident. For commercial enterprises, every visitor is a potential sale.

Within just the last few weeks, I suggested miamibank.com, bankmiami.com and southmiamibank.com as three domain names that my client, First National Bank of South Miami, should register if the names were still available. They took my advice, and now everybody who types any of these generic domain names in Netscape or Internet Explorer will visit my client's web site when it's completed. Sorry, other Miami banks, you were sleeping.

Don't be discouraged, though. It's not too late to get great domain names, but you have to get moving.

While you're at it, be sure to get all of the obvious variations on your domain name. For example, miami-bank.com is an obvious variation of miamibank.com. Don't let someone else steal your thunder by usurping a close variation to your domain. The costs of owning a domain are just too small-something on the order of a couple hundred dollars-to allow this to happen.

Domain Names and Trademarks

If you have a trademarked name, you should register it as a domain name immediately. Obviously it makes sense for people who know your trademark to be able to use it to find your web site. There are many cases of trademarks being registered as domain names by people that don't own the trademark. A few of these cases have become the subject of Internet lore and legend. My favorite-Princeton Review is in the test preparation business. It prepares people for tests like the SATs (college admission test) and MCATs (medical school admission test). Princeton Review, jumped first and registered the domain name, Kaplan.com. Well, "Stanley Kaplan" happens to be the name of its arch rival in the test preparation business.

Let's just say that Kaplan was not pleased and sued. Princeton Review's settlement proposal was a case of beer for the domain name. Kaplan chose binding arbitration for a trademark infringement claim. After losing the arbitration, Princeton Review's president is reported to have said that Kaplan had "no sense of humor, no vision and no beer."

As recently as a year or two ago, the law was extremely unclear as to what extent the law might protect a trademark owner when some other party registered their trademark as a domain name. Now, it's becoming quite clear that the law will offer protection.

But if you are the owner of WonderWidgets, getting back wonderwidgets.com from a wrongful taker can be expensive and time-consuming. NSI has a written policy called "Domain Name Dispute Policy."

It says things like registration is "first-come, first-served." NSI "does not determine the legality of domain name registrations." NSI "does not act as arbiter of disputes." What it doesn't say, but should, is that the dispute process is complicated, aggravating, time-consuming, and requires an Internet-savvy attorney.

What this all means is that someone can effectively grab your WonderWidgets trademark as their domain name. You would then be forced to hire a lawyer to handle your dispute through NSI's Domain Name Dispute Policy and the Federal Court system. Have fun.

I don't know about you, but I think that it would just be easier to register wonderwidgets.com as your domain name now, even if you're not ready to put up a Web Site. You can call any local Internet Service Provider and they will be happy to help you through the domain name registration process for a small fee. They generally charge a fee of $50 to $100 above NSI's $100 fee. Your initial registration is valid for two years and is renewable for $50 per year after the first two-year period.

Even if you're Internet-challenged, and don't quite understand why you're registering your trademark as a domain name, just do it. Trust me on that. Then one day, when you finally understand why you registered that domain name way back in 1997, you can send me an e-mail that simply says "thank you, Mark."

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