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Family names flop in domain disputes

People who register their family names as Web addresses may not be able to hold on to those sites if someone more famous shares the same name, according to recent rulings.

If you own a Web address that contains your name, a more famous person or company may be able to snatch it from you, especially if you sell something on the pages.

The organizations charged with mediating domain name disputes issued two rulings last month against individuals who registered their family names, turning over the sites to guitarist Peter Frampton and to Miller Brewing.

The issue of whether people have the rights to their name in Web addresses has been a tricky one. Several celebrities, including singer Madonna and actress Julia Roberts, have won such cases. However, others, including President George W. Bush and Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, haven't succeeded.

Generally, dispute resolution boards have turned over Web addresses registered by people hoping to profit from the famous name, but they have left some parody sites in the hands of the original owner.

The and rulings raise the question of whether an individual who shares a name with a famous person or company can start a Web-based business without violating trademark rights. In both cases, the owners sold various products and services on the sites, but they were not related to either guitars or beer.

In the case, the guitarist filed a complaint against a man claiming to be Lyle Peter Frampton, saying he tried to capitalize on the famous name. At the time, the site offered vague promises of "income opportunities" and "entertainment" punctuated by multiple exclamation points. A dispute resolution board sided with the singer.

"It is inconceivable to this panel that, when the respondent chose and registered the contested domain name in 1997, it had not been fully aware of the complainant's 'Peter Frampton' mark and particularly the widespread reputation that mark had attained as a result of the complaint's long-term and ongoing efforts in the contemporary music field," the panel wrote.

In the case, Miller Brewing filed a complaint against the Miller family of San Carlos, Calif., claiming the domain name is confusingly similar to the brewer's trademarked slogan. The family argued that it used the site to post family information such as pictures, not to sell beer, and said that the Miller surname predates the brewer's use of it. What's more, the family said "time" is a generic word.

However, the dispute resolution panelist deciding the case sided with the brewer, saying the Miller family tried to profit from the famous name through earlier attempts to sell consulting services on the site. "I cannot...accept respondent's assertion that it is a purely personal family Web site. Respondent admits use of the Web site for offering educational technology services and sale(s) of computer software," the panelist wrote.

The Miller family on Wednesday filed suit in federal court to get the domain name back.