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Asia Buzz: Domain Envy
Who owns what in cyberspace?
By ERIC ELLIS

September 5, 2000
Web posted at 3:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 3:30 a.m. EDT


I got an arrogant e-mail the other day from a guy called Steve Holstein in Illinois. He had tracked down, via Register.com, the owner of the Web domain Newsattack.com, which happened to be me. I'd registered it a year ago because it was a cool name that could be well adapted to some type of hip content business.

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Steve told me he ran an e-zine [online magazine] called News Attack and was trademarking the name with the United States Patents Office. He wanted my address, and this is how he asked me: "The domain in your possession (newsattack.com) will be recognized as ours. I would like to bypass any legal intricacies and offer you payment in exchange for transferring the name NewsAttack.com into my name. I'm willing to pay your domain registration/parking fees plus an additional $100. I look forward to your reply."

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I received this e-mail the day after I read that Hong Kong's Richard Li had paid someone in the U.S. $1 million for the domain name Cyberworks.com -- Pacificcentury.com being an unobtainable mail-order bride site from Kansas City. Hmmm, methinks, Li pays $1 million while I get offered the $70 registration fee plus a C-note for my goodwill. And then I thought, who is this guy anyway, why should I be the one that kowtows to his wishes? So this is how I replied: "Thank you for your mail. I am a journalist who is similarly developing a business called Newsattack, which is precisely the reason why I registered the domain more than a year ago. Last time I looked, the U.S. Patent office had jurisdiction within the U.S. That's 4% of the global population. I wish you all the best in getting as much of that 4% as your readership as you possibly can."

Glib? Perhaps, but it raises an interesting point about who owns what in cyberspace, and how the law deals with it. Should U.S. law be any more authoritative than, say, Bhutanese? If Holstein follows through, wins his case, and seizes control of my domain, why should I acknowledge its jurisdiction? Maybe if I do develop newsattack, do I input some program that prevents it from being loaded on American devices?

Madonna is getting a taste of it at the moment. Her lawyers brought a case against a California pornographer who owns the Madonna.com site. You can go to the site and read all about it (for any Singaporean government officials reading, fear not, the porn has gone so there's no need to prevent access). Madonna means much more to Catholics, for example, than a singer that changes her image every couple of years so as to make more money. Likewise, with Sting.com. When we think of that word, do we think of a bee, or a wasp? Or do we think of the former lead singer of the band, The Police, who's now a solo artist with a strong interest in the Internet.

So far, in the U.S. at least, the law seems to be going the way of Big Business. Around 75% of cases brought have gone the way of the complainant. The World Intellectual Property Organization made an American relinquish the address Tonsil.com to a German company that had trademarked a bleach called Tonsil back in the 1950s. Go to Jesus.com, or Jesuschrist.com, and see what's happening there. Does the Church, any church that recognizes Christ as the savior, have some special right to those domains, one of which seems to be to be a satire that some might consider sacrilegious? There are plenty of Hispanics called Jesus -- couldn't they bring an action as well? And anybody who says religion is not a moneymaking venture is naive in the extreme.

For my part, I'll sit on Newsattack for the minute. I registered a year ago, long before Steve Holstein thought to do so, and the words are generic enough to be inoffensive, dynamic enough to be a groovy corporate name. But if Steve wants to offer me something with a few more zeros than $100, then I might reconsider.

Eric Ellis is the Southeast Asia and Technology Editor of the regional finance portal AsiaWise.com

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