Score one for companies trying to retain use of their names on the Internet.
In what could be a precedent-setting case, a U.S. district judge in Illinois has issued a preliminary injunction preventing a Champaign, Illinois, man from using the domain name americanstandard.com.
Companies increasingly are fighting people who, for $100 a pop, register names through Network Solutions, the private company that controls domain names on the Net.
Dennis Toeppen, who owns the Internet service provider Net66, registered americanstandard.com along with more than 100 other famous names, according to a lawsuit filed by American Standard, who saw Toeppen's move as trademark infringement.
There are two other lawsuits pending against Toeppen, but this is the first one to be resolved in favor of the plaintiff, if only temporarily. Toeppen agreed to the preliminary injuction but the case could now move to trial.
Other names that Toeppen has registered include aircanada.com; allsteel.com; deltaairlines.com; eddiebauer.com; and neiman-marcus.com.
"Toeppen's unabashed purpose is to hold famous trademarks hostage from their rightful owners' ability to use them over the Internet," states the complaint, filed on behalf of American Standard by Randy Lipsitz with Brown, Raysman & Millstein. "However, at least in American Standard's case, for a tribute of $15,000, Toeppen will gladly remove the barrier he placed between American Standard and its trademark."
According to the suit, Toeppen asked for $15,000 to relinquish the name, a move labeled as "extortion" in the suit.
Toeppen responded to email questions about the suit, writing in email, "I voluntarily surrendered the domain name americanstandard.com to a bathroom fixtures manufacturer named American Standard to facilitate expeditious litigation of more interesting issues. There are a number of companies named American Standard, so it will be particularly interesting to see how the court rules on this matter."
His attorney, Joe Murphy, declined to get into the specifics of this case while it is still in litigation, but he spoke to the broader issue of trademarks on the Internet.
"The question is whether an address on the Internet is necessarily equal to a trademark," Murphy said.
At least two attorneys, specializing in trademark issues and the Internet, say that it is.
Individuals, according to Charles Kennedy, a law professor at The Catholic University of America, "don't have a right to violate trademarks and it doesn't matter if it's through a domain name or any other effort."
L. Ray Patterson, a law professor at the University of Georgia, agreed. "For someone to attempt to corrupt the system in the way this gentleman is trying to do is, to my way of thinking, a form of theft."
But, he conceded, "The law on the Internet is a real tangle. There is no law governing the Internet."