Another trademark-driven domain dispute has cropped up, this time involving Veronica.org, a Web site set up by David Sams in honor of his 2-year-old daughter Veronica. The site features photos of the toddler and an appeal to the Netizens to help the Sams family in its fight against the Archie Comics company, which wants the domain handed over because it holds a trademark on the name "Veronica," the brunette character in the classic Archie Comics series.
The legal wrangling is reminiscent of last spring's fight between the Prema Toy Company and 12-year-old Web designer Chris Van Allen's Pokey.org site. The toy company, which owns the trademarks on the claymation character Gumby and his horse Pokey, tried to shut down Van Allen's site, saying it infringed upon its copyrights. However, Pokey.org still belongs to Van Allen, who notes on the site that the battle has been resolved.
These cases are among many faced by domain registrar Network Solutions, and they come at a critical time for the domain name system. NSI is under contract with the U.S. government, which is in the process of turning over control of the domain name system to a nonprofit corporation that represents international interests. NSI's policy is to give domains to a trademark holder or to put a given domain on hold when a dispute arises.
But as the Net matures and commercial and private interests flock online, the domain sector faces a growing number of conflicts--especially in light of the prospect of more top-level domains being added to the fray, as many have advocated. In the Veronica case, Archie Comics owns Veronica.com (though the site is currently inactive and redirects visitors to the main Archie Comics site), and Sams holds Veronica.org; if new top-level domains are added, there could potentially be a Veronica.shop or Veronica.xxx in the future, which likely also would ruffle some feathers at Archie Comics.
Entertainment companies in particular have struggled with the use of their copyrighted material online. This week, Warner Bros. Online launched a community site that allows fans of its movie, music, television, and animation properties to build home pages on its network using authorized images of its copyrighted material. At the time, Jim Banister, executive vice president of Warner Bros. Online, noted that the company's two biggest fears on the Web are "debasement and unsanctioned commercial exploitation" of its properties.
The legal issues at stake hit home for Sams. "This is my daughter's first name--what gives them the right to own a first name?" he said today in an interview with CNET News.com. "There were lots of Bettys and Veronicas before there were Archie Comics."
For its part, Archie Comics says it is simply trying to protect its trademark.
"We had Veronica.com registered, and these people didn't want to give up the [Veronica.org] name for some reason," said Michael Silberkleit, publisher of Archie Comics.
"We certainly cater to children, and we wouldn't be in business if we didn't make children happy," he added. "I would love nothing better than to resolve this amicably, in a way that makes everyone happy."
David Grimes, the attorney representing Archie Comics from Grimes & Battersby, could not be reached for comment, but a letter to Sams from the firm states that Sams's use of Veronica.org "infringe[s] ACP's Veronica trademark." It goes on to ask that Sams "cease all use of the Internet domain 'Veronica.org,' all use of the Veronica trademark," and hand over the domain to Archie Comics. It gives an October 23, 1998, deadline.
Archie Comics also notified Network Solutions of the dispute. NSI contacted Sams on December 15, 1998, looking for a resolution to the dispute within 37 days. In essence, Sams was given until January 22 to come up with a legal defense to Archie Comics' claims, or the domain would be placed on hold, ceasing operation of the site until the dispute was settled.
In a letter responding to Grimes & Battersby, Sams wrote: "The Veronica.org domain name is owned by my 1-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Veronica Sams. Should you wish to take legal action, it is going to have to be against a toddler and her parents.
"Veronica's mother and I registered this domain through our family owned company on her behalf to commemorate her birth," the letter continues. "We are just now in the process of putting together her Web page. You will notice that we are utilizing the noncommercial domain 'org,' and do not wish to make any reference to your client, its marks, or its products. Moreover, this Internet domain that we bought for our child is not for sale."
Silberkleit said he didn't want the Sams to be hurt by the dispute, but "I also don't want to do anything to upset my business."
Sams's letter to the company's law firm argues, however, that "common first names of individuals are not protected by copyright. The category that Veronica is protected by trademark is class 16, for comic magazines. If my daughter was to try to duplicate your Veronica artwork and/or logo, that would clearly be a violation. However, I can assure you that it's going to be a few years before she will have the skills necessary to even attempt to design a logo that could be confused with yours. We're not going to design a site that's going to compete with your client or mislead the public."
This is hardly the first ".com" vs. ".org" dispute. In October, the nonprofit site Ajax.org won its fight against household products giant Colgate-Palmolive, maker of the Ajax cleanser. Colgate-Palmolive trademark lawyers requested that the independent site yield its domain name, but the site owner refused, and got the company to back down when a petition from news and advocacy site Slashdot.org generated more than 1,300 signatures in a 24-hour period.
Sams said today that if Veronica.org gets shut down, he will move the site to "www.veronica.cc."