From pushing music tracks to trying to re-create the cult-like following sparked by the Web site of this year's indie standout, The Blair Witch Project, entertainment executives have cornered the Net as a marketing vehicle and are eyeing it as a future avenue for delivering content.
To protect their ample investments in Net real estate, the movie and recording sectors in particular are focusing their attention on the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is forging policies that could affect online promotions, as well as the industry's ability to crack down on unauthorized uses of its property in cyberspace.
"All of these groups are using the Net to distribute their products but are concerned about piracy and trademark and copyright infringements," said Steve Metalitz, counsel to the Copyright Coalition for Domain Names, which represents the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), music rights organization BMI, the Software Publishers Association, and other organizations.
"That is the reason they are involved--ICANN is the forum at this point for getting these standards set," Metalitz added.
Vying for influence
ICANN is backed by the Clinton administration and is gaining support from other nations in its quest to manage the Net's critical address system. The nonprofit body has accredited more than 60 companies to sell domain names in competition with the world's dominant registrar, Network Solutions (NSI).
The MPAA, for one, has confirmed that it is jockeying for a seat on ICANN's board. It wants to be in the running when the body's delegations--representing domain name registries, intellectual property holders, noncommercial domain name registrants, and other stakeholders--elect nine new board members this November.
"We register more domain names than anybody: every movie, spin-off, character, every artist, album, and tour has a name," said one entertainment industry executive.
Members of the Copyright Coalition for Domain Names will try to influence a wide spectrum of ICANN policies, including whether registries should limit the personal information published about domain name registrants, such as the listings in NSI's Whois database. The database is a key tool for tracking down who is behind a Web site; intellectual property owners use information from the database to subpoena Net access providers to shut down Web sites that publish illegal copies of their content.
Also sparking Hollywood's interest in ICANN is that the entertainment industry has been targeted frequently by so-called cybersquatters, who register Net names and then try to sell them to the highest bidders. For example, David Rayapati of Georgia registered the names "BigDaddyMovie.com" and "WildWildWestMovie.com" in hopes of cashing in on the movies Big Daddy and Wild Wild West.
"I registered them with the intent of selling, but I got no reply," he said. "It was a loss this time, but I'll try several others."
Movie studios have no shortage of resources to fight alleged trademark or copyright violators, but some are irked by sweeping changes in a Net name dispute policy adopted by ICANN at its meeting in Santiago, Chile, last month.
The uniform dispute resolution policy was spearheaded by new registries America Online and Register.com and endorsed by NSI. The policy states that when two parties get into a scrap over a name, they must submit to third-party arbitration to settle the matter before launching an expensive legal battle. The new scheme also eliminates the registry from the dispute resolution process.
In the past, NSI would intervene and suspend a name when its ownership was formally challenged. But critics said the scheme favored big business. That scenario worked well for the studios, which had no trouble shipping off legal letters to kick-start the process.
Policy not in Hollywood's favor
Even though the Copyright Coalition for Domain Names gave input on the policy, ICANN's decision did not come out in favor of the industries.
"It's pretty clear that every movie that comes out has a '.com' attached to it, so it's safe to assume the studios have an interest," said Brian O'Shaughnessy, spokesman for NSI. "But this is a consensus process, and in this instance, this policy is the most expeditious way to solve problems [over the domain names]."
Although the domain name registries and ICANN agree the new conflict resolution policy is fairer to all Net registrants, many in the movie industry prefer the status quo.
"I have no trouble with NSI's monopoly, because it works," the entertainment industry executive added. "Now ICANN has decided its main value is geographic representation. So how do I get interim relief for a non-U.S. registry when I have trouble over a domain name? Now I have to go to the Cayman Islands, Kuwait, wherever they are, and I don't have copyright or trademark laws to back me up there."
The movie and recording industries could turn to their powerhouse lobbies in Washington if they become truly unhappy with ICANN.
However, ICANN is influenced by government and business interests around the world. Moreover, ICANN argues that its agreement with the U.S. government calls for it to foster policies that aren't dominated by corporate interests.
"It changes the balance of power," said Esther Dyson, chair of ICANN's interim board. "The Internet doesn't only belong to the United States; I'm sorry if it's inconvenient."