Namesnakes

Whos been sleeping in your Web domain?

Photo by Myles RobinsonYou've probably heard the stories. A Dallas businessman registers varsity blues.com and then reportedly tries to sell it to Paramount Pictures, which released the James Van Der Beek star vehicle, for $25,000. When the studio declines, he forwards all traffic to the site to an anti-abortion site featuring graphic pictures of dead fetuses. Then a squad of culture jammers put together an unofficial George Dubya Bush campaign site at gwbush.com, offering all the tidbits about the Republican front-runner the official site forgot to tell you, prompting Bush to practically foam at the mouth and eventually utter his infamous comment, "There ought to be limits to freedom."

Domain-name disputes have been heating up for years, particularly when it comes to cybersquatting. Cybersquatting, or the practice of registering desirable domain names and then trying to sell them to the rightful owners, has been a problem for corporations ever since people realized you could make money off the Web. And since Network Solutions, the organization in charge of assigning domain names, gives registrants a 90-day grace period to send in their $70 registration fee, it's a fairly cheap form of highway robbery (since they can keep the name essentially free for three months and then simply re-register it when the grace period expires).

It's hard to feel bad when this happens to, say, Porsche (which in January filed suit against the holders of more than 100 domain names containing the word "porsche," inadvertently including several of its own dealers). But what about when it happens to a tiny business with no money to defend its name, but a whole lot of righteous indignation?

Such as Hemp in the Hollow. The teensy Laguna Beach store, which sells all sorts of products made from the eco-friendly, misunderstood weed, decided about a month ago that it was time to take its act to the Web. But when a friend of owner Steven Farmer looked into it, he discovered that the domain name hempinthehollow.com was already taken by a company in Villa Park called Link to the Future. And when he contacted the company, they offered to sell the name to him—for a thousand bucks.

"They made some claims that were just ridiculous—like they'd gotten 20 calls about [buying] this name," Farmer said. "We're this struggling little company, and we're not making a huge profit. It really fries me that here we are, trying to do some good, and this company is grabbing the names of dinky little stores."

According to store manager Cindy Biggers, about a month ago, a salesman from Link to the Future came by Hemp in the Hollow and offered not only to sell them the name but also to design their Web site for $2,500. "He was trying to pull off this sales pitch of how they were going to come in like a knight in shining armor to do our Web site," she said. "I must have gone off on him for 30 minutes, ranting and raving. I just went on and on and on. I told him how much it had cost us to be in business to bring industrial hemp to the community and try to save the planet, and then when we finally muster enough to get a Web site up, we find out someone has stolen our name and is holding it at bay until we handed over the money. I told him we would change the name of the store before we would do business with them."

Farmer and Biggers said they have since repeatedly tried to contact the owner of Link to the Future, Janet Hansen, and gotten no response. I spoke to an employee of the company, who declined to give his name (although I found out it's Everett Mullens), who told a very different version of the story.

"There's more than one company called Hemp in the Hollow," he said. "We originally got the domain name for someone else. We purchase names all the time for people. We only register names when people come to us—we're not in the business of selling names. I keep trying to explain that to [Farmer], and he doesn't understand. The bottom line is for what we charge, he should have bought it and not looked back."

Link to the Future has registered dozens of domain names related to SoCal businesses—names like carltonhair.com, sanluisobispotoyota.com and christopher stephensspa.com. All registered, if you believe Mullens, at the companies' request.

"I don't have any idea about it," said John Frangie, the owner of Toyota San Luis Obispo. "We didn't request them to register anything for us. I expect they'll be contacting me, wanting to sell the name, but I'm not interested."

"We have no business relationship whatsoever with them," said Mark Demkiw, information-systems manager for Carlton Hair International (which has its own Web site at www.carlton hairint.com). "They did it on their own. I've actually called them, trying to find out what they were going to use it for, but they never called me back. I've left numerous messages, and they won't call me back." Demkiw pointed out that "Carlton Hair" is trademarked and said he has not ruled out the possibility of legal action against Link to the Future. (The courts have consistently ruled that registering another company's trademark as a domain name for the purpose of selling it to them is against the law.)

I spoke to Mullens a few days later, and his story had changed slightly. He now acknowledged that they occasionally register "generic" names, like orangecountydoctors.com, on their own initiative, in anticipation of using them in the future. But he could offer no explanation for how his company had come to register a trademarked name like Carlton Hair.

"I cannot explain how we registered that name," he said. "I've never contacted anyone there, and I've never gotten a message from anyone there."

During our initial conversation, Mullens refused to give me any information on the company he claimed had requested that they register hempinthe hollow.com, citing customer confidentiality. But according to Farmer, they told his associate it was located in Palm Springs. (Mullens would not confirm this.) There is no business by that name listed in Palm Springs.

Farmer said his next move will be to register a variation on his company's name (he asked me not to reveal it, for fear it might get swiped, too). He hopes to have his Web site up and running within the next several weeks. He hasn't ruled out the possibility of a lawsuit, but he admits he never trademarked his store's name, so the outcome would be doubtful.

"I have a couple of attorney friends looking into it, but I'm not sure it's worth getting into the hassle of a lawsuit," Farmer said.

And if Network Solutions has its way, cybersquatting is going to get a whole lot more expensive. Spokesperson Cheryl Regan said that beginning in September, the organization will require domain-name registrants to prepay the $70 registration fee, eliminating the grace period that allows cybersquatters to tie up domain names without shelling out any actual cash.

Of course, Link to the Future denies it's in the business of cybersquatting. According to the company's Web site (www.lttf.com), it's in the business of designing, hosting and maintaining Web sites. (Mullens claimed the company has thousands of clients, but refused to name any of them.) But the fact remains: it has registered businesses' names without the owners' knowledge, and it has tried at least once to sell said domain names for outrageous sums of money. And if it attempts to turn a preemptive domain-name registration into a business relationship, it's hard to imagine the prospective clients' reactions being substantially different from Cindy Biggers'.

"It's just bad," she said. "It's distasteful. There are so many creative things people can do with their time and money besides snaking other people's domain names."

Snake Wyn at machineage@mediaone.net.
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