I have a problem with the whole notion of taking domains away to begin with. The only tune that corporate, capitalist American can sing is "the free market" -- except when it comes to the free market in domain names.
Personally I could see this being useful in 1995, when companies were just waking up to the internet, but I think it's run its course. Any company in 2001 that hasn't registered its corporate name, and all its major products' names before making them public, is stupid and deserves to pay large sums of money to savvy entrepreneurs. In 2001, we're just seeing natural selection running its course. Bailing out stupidity is corporate welfare.
Anyway, the big picture is that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), in adjudicating the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Protocol (UDRP), is trying to find a way to apply trademark law to the internet. The rules put in place ensured that there was to be no free market on "LockheedMartin.com" -- the company that owns the trademark on "LOCKHEED MARTIN" gets it, and others are only allowed to have it if they are doing something appropriate with it (not using it in "bad faith," to be precise).
WIPO makes its decisions based on the UDRP, but has a wide latitude in interpreting it. This is one of its problems, of course. The UDRP has a handful of fuzzy two-word clauses like "bad faith" and "legitimate interests"; WIPO's panelists can interpret them almost any way they want. Consistency is a prerequisite of justice, and randomly-administered justice is no justice at all.
But Monday, the two fuzzy words were "confusingly similar," namely, whether LockheedMartinSucks.com is confusingly similar to LockheedMartin.com. The decisions came down, and they may be the most startling display of WIPO's arbitrary arbitration.
As the decision states, Lockheed-Martin "relie[d] primarily on previous ICANN decisions that have found domain names that combine a trademark with the word 'sucks' to be confusingly similar to the trademark."
Lockheed probably thought it was on safe ground by doing so. The list of domains taken away for that reason was long: guinness-sucks.com, guinness-really-sucks.com, etc., wal-martsucks.com, cabelassucks.com, directlinesucks.com, dixonssucks.com, freeservesucks.com, natwestsucks.com, standardcharteredsucks.com, and wal-martcanadasucks.com, etc.
But Monday's decision, for once, told the truth:
"The disputed domain names are neither identical nor confusingly similar to Complainant's trademarks, since no one would reasonably believe that Complainant operates a website that appends the word 'sucks' to its name and then uses it to criticize corporate America."
What took Captain Obvious so long to arrive?
The decision also notes that in the WalmartCanadaSucks.com decision, the only other case where the trademark-holder was told to take a hike, the sole panelist "expressed skepticism" about the confusing similarity of sucks, "but stopped just short of advocating a per se privilege exempting all 'sucks' domain names."
Likewise here; they make it clear that "no one could reasonably believe" sucks is confusing. And more interestingly -- they do not bother even to consider the other two parts of the three-part test. As soon as they decided that LockheedSucks was not Lockheed, that was it, the case was over.
But, unfortunately, I don't see any language that encourages future panelists to reach the same decision. This is an international body and they don't have to follow the almost-uniquely-American tradition of following precedent and being, you know, predictable. The next ten sucks sites might be taken away, for all anyone can tell. Or they might not. Sucks-sters will just have to hope they get the right panelist.
There were some good lines in this decision, by the way, that tell me that the panelists know what's what. "A website that functions for the exercise of free speech by its nature can not operate with bad faith intent." I like that. Kudos to panelists Foster and Sorkin.
And shame on panelist Wagoner, who was the dissenting voice.
Wagoner was embarrassingly honest in his outrage that the UDRP was being followed, for once. The implication of the majority decision, he complained, is that "the lack of 'confusing similarity' would prevent a finding that the Policy had been violated."
Well, yes: that's exactly how the Policy demands that WIPO rule. When your personal beliefs about what the UDRP should say, Mr. Wagoner, differ from what it actually does say, we'd hope you can figure out which to follow.
And among his reasons why "sucks" should be swallowed up by corporate America is that consumer eyeballs belong to corporate America. If you the consumer do a search for Lockheed, happen to notice that someone is criticizing it at a sucks domain, and then of your own free will and volition decide you want to click and see what the criticism is all about, your reckless websurfing has made you party to a filching of Lockheed's intellectual property:
"...it is likely (given the relative ease by which websites can be entered) that such users will choose to visit the sites, if only to satisfy their curiosity. Respondent will have accomplished his objective of diverting potential customers of Complainant to his websites by the use of domain names that are similar to Complainant's trademark."
The other two panelists smacked down that insipid argument explicitly, too, by the way, saying that once the searcher sees the sucks and nonsucks alternatives, he or she will exhibit a discernment and intelligence measurably higher than the average garden slug.
Someone needs to ask WIPO: what the hell is going on?
Trademark law (in the United States at least) exists for the citizen's protection, not the corporation's. The laws against dilution of trademarks exist so that you and I will not be confused. When the law, or in this case the arbitration rules, start to protect corporations' trademark interests over ours, something has gone wrong.
And domain names are the real estate of the internet. Obviously a sucks domain name is parody, and will not be confused with its target -- obviously. People who would criticize corporations have enough problems to worry about already with libel suits they can't afford to defend (win or lose). The last thing they need is a governing body that can take away their website on absurd charges of trademark violation.
And the second-to-last thing they need is a governing body that can't make up its damn mind.