Political cybersquatting scores a win

A dispute-resolution panel refuses to hand Web addresses to a politician, saying it will no longer rule on such cases unless a personal name is being commercially exploited.

In a victory for cybersquatters and others who snatch up domain names containing personal monikers, a dispute-resolution board has refused to turn over Web addresses containing the words "Kathleen Kennedy Townsend."

Townsend, Maryland's lieutenant governor and a potential candidate for governor this year, discovered that a Baltimore man had registered several Web addresses with her name, including kennedytownsend.org and kathleenkennedytownsend.com.

Townsend argued that she has a trademark on her name and asked the World Intellectual Property Organization's Arbitration and Mediation Center--one of the groups charged with settling domain-name disputes--to transfer the addresses to her.

However, the owner of the disputed sites said that, among other things, he has a free-speech right to use Kennedy's name because she is a political figure.

The board refused to turn the Web addresses over to Kennedy, saying it's relying on a new mandate that it deal only with personal names that are being commercially exploited.

"The panel finds that the protection of an individual politician's name, no matter how famous, is outside the scope of the policy since it is not connected with commercial exploitation," according to the WIPO ruling issued earlier this month.

The disputed domain names are either under construction or do not resolve to a site.

So far, rulings have been mixed on whether people have the right to shut down unauthorized Web sites that use their names in the address. Actress Julia Roberts and vocalist Madonna have won the rights to their names, but New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and President George W. Bush have not.

In recent years, courts and dispute-resolution panels generally have allowed Web site owners to keep domain names if they parody the person or remain unused. However, owners of sites that seek to capitalize on a famous person's name, or cybersquat, often lose.

Less clear, however, is the situation surrounding political figures. When someone is rumored to be running for office, foes and fans of the potential candidate often snatch up Web sites in the hopes of parodying or supporting the person.

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