Chrysler alleges a pornographic site used its trademarked Dodge name to promote itself. The suit claims that since 1996, The Net, New York, has used www.foradodge.com as an entry link to a porn site.
This is a growing problem for online marketers. Online music site CDnow.com competes with adult site CDnow.net; Infoseek Corp. must contend with adult site inofseek.com catching traffic from users' mistakes; and search engine AltaVista just settled a domain name dispute by paying a reported $3 million to secure the Altavista.com domain name.
"The issue is that brands don't translate very well to the Web," said Maribel Lopez, analyst-network strategies at Forrester Research. "If I want to go to Northwest Airlines, it's something I have to guess at," she said, pointing out that instead of www.north
westairlines.com, the airline picked www.nwa.com.
If users turn to a search engine to find a product or service, they may find and use a competitors' services, she said.
That's why many companies are cropping up to help marketers secure and protect their domain names.
One newcomer is Namestake-.com, a company founded in August as a spinoff of trademark and intellectual property consultant Thomas & Thomas, Cambridge, Mass.
PROTECTING NAMES ONLINE
This week, Namestake launches a global domain name registration service to register and monitor a company's domain name in as many countries as it wants.
The service costs $375 per country for a two-year term. Namestake is partnering with domain name registries such as Network Solutions to offer its service.
"You're going to spend far more than that on lawyers," said Tom Barrett, VP-general manager at Namestake, whose clients include Digital Marketing Concepts, a Boston-based Web developer.
Namestake tracks and updates daily a database of the 4.5 million domain names registered worldwide. It offers some domain-name information for free but charges for detailed reports, which identify the owners of particular names, describe the site and show if the name is active, on hold or deleted.
And while some of the information is available on the Web for free, Namestake's service "allows you to get information in 10 minutes" and the information is up to date, said Ms. Lopez.
Mr. Barrett said domain name pirates often secure potentially hot names, waiting for a buyout offer. If none comes, they let the registration on the name expire.
Karen Edwards, VP-brand marketing at Yahoo!, said the search engine has registered its name worldwide. So far, she said Yahoo! has been able to work out situations to get people to stop using misleading domain names. "We take it very, very seriously," she said. "We're concerned because we don't want users to be confused, but some instances are more egregious than others."
"We've been securing these trademarks since 1996," she said. And any companies that are just starting to think about this now might be too late, she added.
To complicate things, several Internet domain registries have started selling domain names with suffixes such as .store, .firm and .nom. They are anticipating the approval of the Internet Corp. of Assigned Names & Numbers, a non-profit group to be appointed by the White House to deal with domain names, among other Internet infrastructure issues. If ICANN rejects suffixes, the names will be useless.
Last week Network Solutions, which runs the InterNIC domain registry, was set to lose its monopoly when its contract with the National Science Foundation expired.
But Ira Magaziner, special adviser to the White House, granted Network Solutions a one-week extension to give ICANN a chance to get organized. So far, none of the nine board members has been named.
Naseem Javed, president of ABC Namebank International (www.abcnamebank.com), a name consultancy, said if the additional suffixes are allowed in, it'll mean more headaches for marketers and lawsuits.
"Why do we have to have a first-come, first-served, la-la land philosophy?" he said of the way domain names are assigned. He said offline trademark laws should apply to Internet names so, for instance, Kodak would automatically own rights to Kodak.store.
In addition, Mr. Javed sees thousands of overused Internet words adopted for domain names, which will only confuse users. For instance, he said there are 879,300 domain names that use the root "Web," and another 790,100 that use the word "link."
"This is not an Internet issue," he said, "This is a marketing communications issue."