No room for cybersquatters

Cybersquatters, once a mere nuisance, now can go to prison for violating your trademark. Get your lawyer on the phone.

It was the eve of the new millennium, and while revellers and doomsayers had bigger thoughts on their minds, legal watchdogs trained their eyes on an obscure case in Oakland, California, between the Web site Quokka Sports and two New Zealand-based companies.

The issue? Rights to two domain names: americascup.com and teamnewzealand.com. Why all the fuss? Because this case was anticipated to be the first test of the U.S. Anti cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, which was signed into law on Nov. 29, 1999, amid protests from free-speech activists who fear the law will stifle legitimate forms of protest and parody on the Internet.

Unfortunately, a precedent-setting decision was not to be. Quokka accepted an out-of-court settlement on Dec. 22. A real test of the ACPA will have to wait.

The ACPA, also called the Trademark Cyber piracy Prevention Act, calls for broad protection of business trademarks. Guilty parties can be found liable for statutory damages of up to $100,000 per hijacked trademark or up to $300,000 per trademark if the registration of the URL is considered "willful".

Quokka isn't the only company salivating over the possibilities of a litigated windfall -- a rash of lawsuits targeting cyber squatters has erupted since the law passed. Most notable is that from a mammoth trademark interest group called the Coalition to Advance the Protection of Sports logos (CAPS). This alliance of sports organisations is using the ACPA to sue FlairMail.com, a Web site that offers free e-mail addresses from sports domains like goavalanche .net and mightyducks1.com.

Eric Grimm, attorney for FlairMail .com manager Jeff Burgar, says vehemently that FlairMail.com has not violated any law. "The act has nothing to do with consumer protection and everything to do with favouring a few large campaign donors over all ordinary Internet users," he says.

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