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Washington Post battles domain claim

The Washington Post Co. threatens an anti-abortion activist with legal action for registering a similar domain name and snatching e-mail messages intended for reporters.

The Washington Post Co. threatened an anti-abortion activist with legal action on Friday for registering a similar domain name and snatching e-mail messages intended for reporters.

Bill Purdy, who lives in South Saint Paul, Minn., has registered WPNI.org, which is similar to the WPNI.com domain name that many Washington Post-Newsweek employees have as part of their e-mail addresses.

Purdy already is being sued by The Washington Post and the Coca-Cola Company for registering a slew of domains such as WashingtonPostMurders.com and MyCoca-Cola.com. Dismissing his claims that the domains were intended as political protests against the companies' allegedly pro-abortion stances, a federal judge in July ordered Purdy to turn them over to the plaintiffs.

In a stiffly worded letter on Friday, attorneys for The Washington Post demanded that Purdy turn over the WPNI.org domain and any e-mail sent to him by mistake. "It clearly constitutes a separate infringement of The Washington Post Entities' trademark rights and other violations of unfair competition laws," wrote Patrick Carome, an attorney at Wilmer Cutler and Pickering who represents the paper. "Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive has made substantial use of the term 'WPNI' in commerce and has unquestionable trademark rights in the name and mark."

Carome claimed in the letter that Purdy telephoned Washington Post employees on Thursday and read aloud their e-mail that had accidentally gone to him instead. He set a deadline of 11:30 am PDT on Friday for a response from Purdy.

Purdy has dubbed his WPNI.org site "William Purdy's Novel Insights" and claims the close resemblance of the domain name to one owned by The Washington Post is sheer coincidence. "They don't have a trademark for it or anything," Purdy said.

Purdy said he's transferred ownership of the domain to a Mexican man named Pablo Rubio Sanchez and could no longer comply with The Washington Post's demands even if he wanted to. "They're going to be serving me (with legal documents) as of tonight," Purdy said on Friday afternoon. "That's what I predict. I'm not going to be available for service. I'm leaving town."

CNET News.com reviewed six of the misaddressed messages, provided by a person on condition of anonymity, sent to WPNI.org by accident. One was sent by a public relations official from the World Bank about a WashingtonPost.com online chat, and another came from an address at the Marine Corps' headquarters. None included confidential information.

The Washington Post refused to comment. "I think the letter speaks for itself," a representative said. "We typically don't comment on legal issues like this one. We'll continue to pursue this as a legal issue."

Enlisting the ECPA
In the letter, the paper's attorney made two other arguments: Purdy's actions violated both an existing court order prohibiting him from "registering or using" a domain name similar to WashingtonPost.com and also the Electronic Privacy Communications Act (ECPA). ECPA says anyone who "intentionally intercepts (or) endeavors to intercept" any electronic communication, except for limited circumstances such as Carnivore or wiretap use, violates federal criminal law.

The Washington Post is unlikely to win a case against Purdy based on ECPA, said Mikal Condon, staff counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"The Washington Post's claim is novel and seems like a stretch," Condon said. "If their interpretation were to be true, there would be thousands of Web sites and domain names that would constitute violations of ECPA. So at the very least, it seems like a dangerous interpretation of the statute."