Get Your Hands Off My.Com

Conflict over Web monikers is rising. Who will be the arbiter?

What's in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

--Shakespeare, Romeo & Juliet

Too bad the bard's sentiments in that classic tale of star-crossed lovers doesn't apply to Net-crossed companies. Just ask Juno Online Services LP. For the past 15 months, the New York-based company has been offering its millions of members a free, ad-based Internet E-mail service. But late last year, Juno received notice from Network Solutions Inc. (NSI), the Herndon (Va.) company that administers and maintains Net addresses, that its domain in dispute.

WEAPON OF CHOICE. Lampmaker Juno Lighting Inc., in Des Plains, Ill., claims to have held a trademark to the "Juno" name since the late 1970s and insists that is an infringement of its trademark. If the courts uphold Juno Lighting's claim, Juno Online could be forced to turn out its lights and upset service for its 2.5 million members.

And that could be just the beginning. Disputes over Internet domain names--the electronic addresses that Web sites use--are becoming more frequent as the Net explodes and becomes a corporate hangout. Now, players scrambling to get choice Net names are finding themselves fighting off other companies (table). And increasingly the weapon of choice is trademark law.

Take Candyland. Last year, toymaker Hasbro Inc. successfully fought off Internet Entertainment Group Inc. (IEG) for Hasbro, which has held a 47-year trademark on the children's board game, won back the domain name after the courts ruled that IEG's site--an online porn page--was a clear case of trademark dilution.

What's the solution for warding off such disputes? Most detractors say the domain name registration process must change. Previously, NSI registered names on a first-come, first-served basis. But last year, NSI changed its policy to allow any trademark holder to contest registered domain names. If the plaintiff proves that it has legal right to the name, NSI will "turn off" the domain name in question. The only recourse for current domain name holders is to countersue to keep the name available until the dispute is settled.

As a consequence, many now advocate changing the process and eliminating NSI's lock on the ".com" suffix--the address that identifies "commercial" entities on the Net. The Internet Ad Hoc Committee (IAHC), a group of Net companies and individuals, made such a proposal earlier this year. Their plan: to create new suffixes such as ".firm" for companies and ".nom" for individuals and designate international registrars to handle new domain names.

JUSTICE LOGS ON. Meanwhile, NSI faces its own legal headaches. On June 28, PGMedia Inc., an Internet concern that is developing an alternative domain name registry, filed suit against NSI. PGMedia claims that NSI's lock on the registration process is preventing it from doing business. At the same time, the Justice Dept. has confirmed that it, too, is interested in the domain name business. It has served NSI with a civil investigative demand for papers to determine "the possibility of anticompetitive practices in the Internet address registration industry."

The timing couldn't be worse for NSI. The company filed on July 3 with the Securities & Exchange Commission to become a publicly traded company. Officials at NSI wouldn't comment on the legal actions, saying the company has entered the "quiet period" as required by the SEC. Still, NSI spokesman Christopher Clough says that since 1995, when the company received domain name responsibility from the National Science Foundation, NSI has successfully registered over 1.2 million domain names. Of those, only 26 have been disputed, with 22 settled out of court, says Clough.

Still, with the explosive commercial growth of the Net, the name game is far from settled.

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