The Domain Name Game 

Wednesday, Dec 22 1999

If I could turn back time, there are just three things I would do differently: one concert I would attend, one boy I would kiss and one domain name I would register. Truly, it is good to have such a simple and regret-free life. (And I’ll bet I could get a do-over on the boy if I really tried.)

Of course, regret is a useless sentiment, especially where the Net is concerned. After all, just because a person registers a domain doesn‘t mean, in this day and age, that it’s theirs. Consider, if you will, these strange portents of late 1999: Acquiring a domain name first doesn‘t mean you get to keep it, the Web is not a place for parody and satire, and e-commerce is so ungodly profitable that you don’t even have to play the game to win.

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Our first contestant in the what-is-the-world-coming-to? sweepstakes is the site formerly known as etoy.com, which got summarily de-com.missioned last month by a Los Angeles judge. The judge was responding to a lawsuit filed by toy merchant eToys.com, which claimed that the s-less ones were diluting their trademark, confusing the public, frightening the horses and otherwise misbehaving in ways that meant they should have their domain taken away.

Sounds like a basic case of domain-squatting, in which some skeevy outfit tries to skim off fat-fingered visitors who mistype their way into a similar-sounding site. Right? Wrong. Etoy (no s) is an award-winning international arts collective that registered its site in October 1995; eToys (with s), which sells mass-market plastic crap to spoiled children, didn‘t come online till October 1997. On the face of it, no overlap, no copyright infringement, no harm, no foul.

Not according to Judge John P. Shook, who is clearly not a man accustomed to looking people in the face. After demanding that etoy fly in from Europe to present its case, Shook whipped out a pre-written injunction forcing the arts folks to pull down their site until after the all-important holiday shopping season. Etoy is on the side of the angels, according to most legal observers. However, it’s not the observers but the paid lawyers who make the difference in these matters. According to etoy spokespeople, eToys.com offered approximately $500,000 in cash and stock to get etoy to simply walk away from the domain. What multiple of that do you suppose they‘ll spend on legal beagles? And how much do you suppose your average art collective has available for legal fees? Yeah. Etoy is taking a spunky approach, putting its site back online at www., but don’t expect this Christmas story to end happily ever after.

And then there‘s gatt.org, put online by a the most excellent satirists and social critics of rtmark.com. Apparently the WTO folk didn’t have enough to worry about earlier this month, since they took time from their busy schedules to harangue rtmark for providing a “disservice” to the public by putting up Web sites with domain names that might confuse passersby. Rtmark, in turn, is accusing the WTO of putting up a fake Web site, inasmuch as the official WTO site claims to be “transparent” (that is, revealing the processes behind its decisions) and yet posts tens of thousands of unreadably ponderous and thus opaque official documents. That‘s the spirit, rtmark folks -- a good offense is the best defense!

Of course, these aren’t the only online wits pissing off corporate fat cats: George W. Bush has a burr the size of a tennis ball in his saddle over the continuing depredations of gwbush.com. That obvious-to-the-casual-observer parody site is run by a fellow named Zach Exley, who‘s turning out some great bits on why GWB is utterly unfit to run a fraternity mixer, much less the country. Governor Bush, heir-presumptive to the stewardship of Truth, Justice and the American Way, has gone on the record calling Exley a “garbage man” and opining that “there ought to be limits to freedom.” Like the site says, “It’s the hypocrisy, stupid.”

How insane is the current domain-name climate? Our last subject this week is business.com, a Web site that at the moment consists of one welcome page and one press release announcing it is to be sold to a couple of overripe idiots (including Sky Dayton, founder of Pasadena-based EarthLink) to the tune of $7.5 million, strictly for the domain name. That works out to just about $618,181.18 per letter. Per letter. New millionaire Marc Ostrofsky bought the domain three years ago from a British firm, paying $150,000 (which seemed like a lot of money at the time). The folks at bidness.com -- registered September 1996 -- better buckle down for a bumpy, high-altitude ride.

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