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'Cybersquatters:' Invading big names' domains
LONDON (CNN) -- If you are a Madonna fan and want to visit her on the web, do not bother logging on to madonna.com.
If international travel is your online interest, avoid singaporeairlines.com or klm.org and if you want to know more about your favourite drop, guiness.net and steinlager.com will not help.
Confused? So are the individuals and organisations claiming to have had their internet identities stolen by so-called "cybersquatters".
The occupation of website domains by people seeking to trade on famous names is a rapidly growing trend and an increasingly lucrative one.
Scotland's Charles Sweeney is one of Europe's aspiring net name entrepreneurs.
He has claimed the ownership of more than 300 domains ranging from those of famous people and organisations to ones featuring current events.
Despite investing more than £10,000 ($14,500) on the rights to the names, he is confident he can make a healthy living from either trading them or selling advertisements on phantom websites.
"You can register a name for about £12 ($17.41) and once you have, it is yours," he said from his Glasgow home.
"It's a great deal because if you pick the right one it could turn out to be a great investment."
His interest in websites is hardly driven by any technology fixation: "I'm not into computers as such. I'm into buying something for a tenner (ten pounds) and selling it for five grand."
He has just done exactly that.
Sweeney sold his first domain name last month -- the innocuous enough URL londontolet.com -- for £5,000 ($7,255).
He says he held out for the price after quite a few offers.
While that domain name is hardly controversial, Sweeney also has control over babyleo.com, as in Leo Blair, the new son of the British Prime Minister, and babyrocco.com, which is dedicated to Madonna's new son.
He has names featuring the car brands Porsche and Ferrari and has just bought benainslie.com in the hope that the English yachtsman will win a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics.
It's this variety of cybersquatting that poses a vexing problem for regulators.
The Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) arbitrates domain name disputes and every month, the increase in its workload sets new records.
Almost 1,200 challenges -- a third of them from Europe -- have come before WIPO since its establishment last year.
With the number of URLs now estimated at more than eight million, the United Nations body says its massive job aims to ensure the integrity of the net.
"I think there is a broad-based, underlying interest in having authenticity in identifiers on the internet," Francis Gurry, WIPO's assistant director-general said.
"You aren't dealing with someone face to face. When you type in a name you want to know you are going to that site and not to a pornography site."
Squatted: domain name winners and losers
Winners at WIPO have included big names like Microsoft, Yahoo! and Motorola. The family of guitar legend Jimi Hendrix recently won a battle over the site jimihendrix.com and the Barcelona City Council won back barcelona.com.
In one of the most famous cases, actress Julia Roberts was granted the rights to juliaroberts.com -- even though her domain name raider still occupies the site.
On the page, users can read a list of, "baby animals whose heads Julia has bitten off or eaten whole as snacks."
American Russell Boyd who is behind the site also uses it to criticise the arbitration process.
"WIPO, and courts around the world and throughout time have consistently shown favoritism to the rich, the famous and the incorporated, while the average Joe gets the legal boot to the teeth," his site says.
The main gripe of cybersquatters is that 80 percent of complaints that have come before WIPO are upheld.
"It's first come first served the way I look at it," Charles Sweeney said.
"If, you're one of the other Julia Roberts' on the planet, shouldn't you have just as much right to the domain name as the famous one?" But not all WIPO's rulings go the way of the rish and famous.
Penguin Books was denied its request for the transfer of penguin.org from a man with the nickname Penguin, and pop star Sting will have to find a different domain after his demand for sting.com was rejected on the grounds that sting was not his real name and was a common word.
"It isn't surprising the majority of the cases have been won by the complainants, because really you should know pretty well on filing whether you are going to win," Gurry said.
"If you look through all the cases, I don't think you would be very surprised by the results."
But opponents point to WIPO decisions that they say go against common sense, such as corinthians.com, where a site containing quotations from the Bible was ordered transferred to a Brazilian soccer team.
Britain's budget airline Easyjet was angered by the recent decision to leave the domain name easy-jet.com with its holder, a small printer cartridge retailer.
It is no wonder the decisions are drawing controversy; the domain name game is quickly becoming big business.
Sweeney's success in selling his first name for £5,000 is dwarfed by the prices being offered for some sites.
The owner of the domain travel.com has reportedly received offers in excess of $100 million for the site.
Last year, business.com set a new record when it was sold for $7.5 million and the owner of e-business.com is asking $15 million for that domain.
Sweeney says prices of useful site names will escalate which is why he is willing to continue paying for so many registrations.
"I've had many attractive offers but I think the longer I hold onto names the more money I'll get," he said.
But he can see fault with cybersquatters who vilify their subjects on the sites or pass themselves off as the legitimate business site.
"If I had someone's name and they came to me complaining, I'd probably give it to them," he said.
Sweeney is now turning his attention to news stories and events as a new strategy.
Rather than only selling domain names, he's now attempting to make money by placing advertising on sites that feature current news events or issues.
One new acquisition is georgespeight.com, named after the leader of the recent coup attempt in Fiji.
"A lot of people visit the site and many of them email me and ask questions. I think they think I'm George Speight," he said.
Just last week he registered another name, shaylergate.com. It is aimed at attracting visits from people interested in the trial of former British spy David Shayler.
"If there's big revelations in that case, that site could be useful for years to come," Sweeney said.
Like many "cybersquatters" large and small, his aim now is to give away his day job and take up trading domain names as a business.
"There is a skill in thinking ahead and finding those names that people are going to want ... before they realise they want them," he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.
France Telecom, easyJet lose 'cybersquat' cases
World Intellectual Property Organization
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