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Circus in domain trademark flap

Ringling Brothers files a lawsuit against People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals for using its name for a protest site.

The "Greatest Show on Earth" is not amused by an animal rights group's use of its name on the Web to protest its use of animals.

Ringling Brothers-Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows Incorporated has filed a "deceptive trademark" lawsuit against animal rights activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) for registering and using the domain name "www.ringlingbrothers.com" for a site that criticizes the circus' use of animals.

"Ringling Brothers charged by Dueling domains feds over elephant's death," reads a headline on the PETA protest site regarding the January 25 death of a baby elephant named "Kenny."

Also posted are a letter to the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requesting the suspension of Ringling Brothers' "captive-bred-wildlife permit" and the text of an Agriculture Department (USDA) complaint against the circus, as well as an article about the "Plight of Elephants in Circuses" and the circus' schedule through November 1998.

Ringling Brothers claims to have an "unblemished record of animal care during the 30 years of its current ownership," and said that in 1995 it established a $5 million Elephant Conservation facility.

The site also encourages readers to write protest letters to the USDA and circus sponsor Sears as well as to organize protests and pamphleteering at circus performances.

The suit is the latest in a series of trademark disputes involving domain names, joining others by groups such as Jews for Jesus and a coalition of 24 country music artists.

In February, a federal appeals court upheld a 1997 ruling that barred an antiabortion activist from using the "plannedparenthood.com" domain. Planned Parenthood had sued on grounds that the protest site violated its trademark and confused consumers.

Trademark law has evolved to the extent that so-called dilution of a trademark is addressed. Judges recently have ruled that a 1995 update to the Trademark Act of 1946 extends to the Net in that the domain name system's "first come, first served" policy is not valid when the domain name in question dilutes the trademark of a given company.

In the case of Ringling Brothers, "PETA is using our name to lure and to deceive people into looking at their information," said Catherine Ort-Mabry, spokesperson for Feld Entertainment, which owns and operates the 79-year-old circus.

"They have every right to spread their information and have their opinion, but they can't use our property to do so," she added. Feld Entertainment is asking for the removal of the site as well as an undisclosed sum in punitive damages.

PETA president Ingrid Newkirk said today she is happy with the publicity the lawsuit has brought the organization.

"We've had scores of hits," she said. "The site has been up for over a month, and it was relatively obscure until [Ringling Brothers] advertised it in their news release."

As for the suit itself, Newkirk said, "We have told [Ringling Brothers'] lawyers that we'll get back to them on Monday with our decision whether or not we're going to fight [the lawsuit]."

Newkirk said the lawsuit is a tactic by the circus to distract attention from the accusation of animal abuse.

"You send in the clowns when you don't want the public to see when something terrible is going on," she said.

Ironically, PETA has had its own trademark trouble. In February 1996, it complained to Network Solutions when Net prankster Michael Doughney, who registered the domain "www.peta.org," posted a site for "People Eating Tasty Animals." The site offered links to fur stores and meat organizations such as the National Pork Producers Council. The site has been moved, and PETA has its central site at "www.peta-online.org." PETA.org is still registered to Doughney, but the InterNIC has its status listed as "on hold."

At the time, however, PETA spokesman Steven Ragland told the San Jose Mercury News that "the people who are doing this are the lowest of the low. We can't help but be amused that we are so threatening to people like this that they would go to so much trouble as to steal away our name."

Newkirk said PETA's reversal of its policy on the domain issue is justified because the PETA.org site was "not facts. What we've put on the Ringling site is all available under the Freedom of Information Act."

The People Eating Tasty Animals site "wasn't fact vs. fact," she noted. "It was just rubbish."