Aimster loses domain-name battle with AOL

An independent panel of the National Arbitration Forum decides that several Aimster-held Net addresses violate AOL's "AIM" trademark.

AOL Time Warner's America Online has prevailed in a trademark dispute against Aimster, forcing the Napster-like program to relinquish several Internet domain names.

A three-member, independent panel of the National Arbitration Forum (NAF) decided last week that the names--Aimster.com, A1mster.com, Aimstertv.com and Aimstertv.net--violate the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) trademark. The NAF said Aimster, which taps into messaging software to create file-swapping buddy lists, also forfeited its rights without contest to two domain names similar to the AOL-owned ICQ instant messaging service: Icqster.com and Ic2ster.com.

"AOL owns the trademark AIM for the AOL Instant Messenger, and the panel determined that Aimster's use of the term 'aim' in their name was a violation of the right that AOL held in the word 'aim,'" said Timothy Cole, the NAF's assistant director of arbitration. "Because they also used the AOL Instant Messenger as part of their program...it clearly meant that their use of the term 'aim' was intended to capitalize on the popularity that had been established by AOL."

The NAF said Aimster has until the end of May to take legal steps that could prevent the transfer from happening automatically.

Aimster's service combines the properties of a file-swapping system with instant messaging. The software piggybacks on IM contacts, drawing "buddy lists" from programs such as AIM and allowing people to swap files, including those in MP3 format, within that group.

Other IM programs have attempted to work with AOL's services, but the Internet and media giant has blocked most other companies' software from communicating directly with its own. But AOL doesn't have the power to block Aimster because all file trading and chat happens within Aimster's own networks.

AOL did find firm footing in the domain-name arena. The Minneapolis-based NAF said the panel focused on fair use and determined that Aimster could not include the word "aim" in its domain names without infringing on AOL's trademark.

"We regularly take action to protect our trademarks and intellectual property," said AOL spokesman Andrew Weinstein. "We're pleased by the decision."

Aimster argued, however, that the term "aim" is generic and refers to its software's ability to "target files," and not to the AOL service.

"The arbitration board has made a horrendous error in its judgment," said Johnny Deep, chief executive of Aimster. "There is no way they should have tried to decide something where it's just a big company against a small company--that's never what that forum was meant for. It was meant for cybersquatters, and everybody knows what a cybersquatter is. That's not what this is."

The 2-1 decision comes as online companies increasingly face and make challenges over trademark and domain name violations. In February, a federal judge sided with Referee magazine and ordered Right Sports to stop using the word "referee" in all of its domain names. Celebrities such as Sting and Madonna also have fought sites that used their names for Web addresses.

The AOL dispute was one of hundreds heard each year by the NAF through its relationship with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the entity in charge of administrating domain names. The NAF consists of an international network of former judges, senior attorneys and law professors.

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