Major sports leagues file cybersquatting suit

A coalition of national sports league members sues a Canadian businessman under the new cybersquatting law, accusing him of unlawfully hawking email addresses with the names of professional sports teams.

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A coalition of national sports league members today sued a Canadian businessman under the new cybersquatting law, accusing him of unlawfully hawking email addresses with the names of professional sports teams.

The lawsuit, filed this morning in U.S. District Court in New York, will serve as a warning to others who use team names on the Net, said Ethan Orlinsky, a Major League Baseball attorney. Some of the names listed in the suit include rangers1.com, goredwings1.net and yankees1.com.

"This will be the first of many lawsuits," Orlinsky said. "We are aware of other cybersquatters, and we have taken action."

The cybersquatting law is designed to protect businesses from those who register company trademarks as Internet addresses in "bad faith" and later try to sell them for profit. Violators face between $1,000 and $10,000 in fines per domain name. But the law does carve out exceptions for legitimate uses, such as a fan club that refers to an organization but does not use the trademarked name for profit.

Although the cybersquatting law is barely three weeks old, major companies are already lining up to take advantage of the protections it offers. Whether it will uphold the interests of big business remains to be seen, however.

Critics fear that the law does not protect small-business owners. Some are closely watching the battle between a European art group called Etoy and the popular Web site eToys. In that case, the art group claims it registered the domain name two years before eToys and therefore has a right to the address.

But already, a Los Angeles judge has issued a preliminary injunction ordering the group to stop using the domain name or risk fines of up to $10,000 per day. Another hearing on the matter is scheduled for Dec. 27.

The coalition that filed suit today includes members of the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League. The Collegiate Licensing Company is also a member but is not party to the complaint, because none of the sold email addresses involved college sports.

The group is seeking a court order to stop Canadian Jeff Burgar from selling the email addresses. It also wants to recapture the Web addresses that use the team trademarks that Burgar already sold to customers.

As they gather evidence, coalition attorneys said they will ask for a detailed accounting of Burgar's profits, which will later be calculated into the amount in damages that should be awarded to the sports leagues if they win the case.

Burgar could not be reached for comment this morning. His Web site, Flairmail.com, does not provide a telephone number for a contact, and he has not responded to email messages. It is unknown who will represent him in the action.

Trouble for Burgar began sometime in the early summer, when a hockey fan alerted the NHL about the Web site. A series of letters between league attorneys and Burgar were exchanged, but nothing was resolved, Orlinsky said.

Burgar apparently refused to give up the Net addresses but offered to sell them to the coalition for "an exorbitant amount," NFL attorney David Proper said, without elaborating.

The coalition then sued Burgar, accusing him of trademark infringement and of violating the new cybersquatting law.

Mary Sotis, attorney for the NHL, said the coalition worries about the trademark infringement in part out of concern for fans. "The league wants to protect fans from being duped into thinking they're getting mail from their teams," she said.

Another cybersquatting case involves Quokka Sports, which runs a Web site featuring mountain-climbing expeditions and coverage of sailing events like the America's Cup.

Tomorrow, a federal judge in Oakland, Calif., will hear arguments over who has the rights to the America's Cup domain name: Quokka, which has rights to use the America's Cup logo, or two men from New Zealand running a Web site devoted to the America's Cup. The judge has already issued a temporary restraining order against the two men. But a final ruling in this legal dogfight could set the stage for other cybersquatting cases, said Quokka attorney Adam Belsky of San Francisco firm Gross & Belsky.