Two charities that use the Internet to enlist others to their cause have become embroiled in a trademark dispute over the word "compassion," of all things.
Compassion.net has filed suit against another charity, Compassion International, after the latter demanded that the former "cease and desist" from using the word "compassion" as their domain and business name.
Compassion.net, devoted to matching charities with possible donors and volunteers, has been using the domain name "compassion.com" since 1995. Compassion International, a Christian missionary charity, maintains it has held the trademark on the word "compassion" since 1968.
Compassion.net cofounder Jeanine Parker said she received a notice from Compassion International in April of this year, demanding that she discontinue further use of the word "compassion" either on her Web site or as a business name.
"The first thing we got was a legal letter." Parker noted. "They, of course, didn't know who they were dealing with."
Parker serves on the board of directors for the Internet Developers Association and was willing to use the experience to help better define the murky legal area of trademark and intellectual property infringements on the Internet.
Although there have been domain name battles in the past, they usually involve "cybersquatters" who register a domain name in order to sell it for profit. The "compassion" case is the latest high-profile suit where a trademark holder claims that use of a domain name constitutes trademark infringement.
Compassion International would comment on the suit only through a prepared statement: "Compassion International believes that the lawsuit brought against it by Compassion.net has absolutely no merit. Compassion International is confident that the California federal court will reach this same conclusion."
"Sooner or later, one of these [domain] cases is going to court, and the judge is going to make a decision," said Compassion.net attorney Gil Silberman said. "Under conventional trademark law, you cannot own a common English word."
Network Solutions, which runs the InterNIC domain name registry, was not immediately available for comment. According to Silberman, Network Solutions has allowed Compassion.net to continue to use the domain name pending the resolution of the suit.
The irony of two charities resorting to the courts to settle a dispute is not lost on Parker. Compassion.net has even set up a mirror site, Nocompassion.com, in the event that it loses its domain name.
"The thing that struck us that was really strange is that they are a Christian charity," Parker added. "Had they just picked up the phone or emailed..."