Spexis drew my attention to a new practice that’s popular on the web despite being thoroughly reprehensible: cybersquatting. Cybersquatting consists of registering an internet domain name (which, very broadly speaking, is a website name such as Paris.fr) that is the same as a brand name belonging to a company. If that company forgets to reserve or renew the right to that name, it leaves the field free to unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of its negligence.
The cybersquatter can achieve his ends by using the various forms of extension available (.uk, .com, .org, etc.) as well as the new generic extensions (.biz, .info, .name). He won’t just register the domain name of “St Tropez.fr”, but also “St Tropez.com”, .org and so on – the example is a good one, as the town of St Tropez was itself a victim of cybersquatting, which shows how powerful a brand name can be.
In practice there can be a variety of motives behind cybersquatting. It can be commercial: some people and companies have made a real business out of registering deceptively similar but misleading names like TheGap.com in the hope of selling them for a high price to the owners of the brand. The better known the brand, the more likely it is to pay huge amounts to buy back its domain name. Others engage in cybersquatting with quite another aim in view; their intention is to undermine the brand whose domain name they have registered, for instance by capitalising on the traffic generated by the brand name to redirect customers to a competitor. A few years ago, pornography websites often used the names of well-known insurance companies or banks to drive up their visitor numbers. Nowadays, the major brands are much more vigilant. Another reason might be to discredit a politician or institution. The site called Obama ForPresident.com directed visitors not to the then Presidential candidate’s policy statements, but puzzles and fantasy football. A similar one set up in France was more blatant – it actually sent people to the AntiSarko website.
The law tends to frown on cybersquatting as a practice that undermines companies’ intellectual property and other rights, and treats it as close to unfair competition and misrepresentation or “passing-off”. Generally speaking, the courts in most countries will uphold the rights of the true owners of the brand name, the ones who created and use it even where they haven’t registered it as a domain name.