Wild week for AltaVista suit victor

The former owner of the "Altavista.com" domain is recovering from winning a $3.35 million settlement at the same time his son was born.

4 min read
Jack Marshall was standing in a hospital watching a doctor prepare his newborn son for circumcision when a reporter paged him to ask about a reported $3.3 million lawsuit settlement over the domain name "www.altavista.com."

It would be fair to say it's been a pretty busy week for Marshall, the 37-year-old father of two and cofounder of a company that originally registered "Altavista.com."

Or, more to the point: "It's been the wildest week of my life," Marshall said in a cellular-phone interview this morning from a local park where he was "watching my little boy debate whether to go down the slide."

Then he was heading into the office--with two-year-old Cody in tow--for an interview with a television station, although with all the press attention he's been getting, he couldn't say for sure which one. (For the record, it's CNBC.) After that he was hoping to actually head home to be with his family.

The week began See special report: 
Birth of a giant auspiciously enough: After nearly two years of battling with Digital Equipment and then Compaq Computer following its acquisition of Digital, Marshall flew to Boston, where he initialed a settlement. He got home at noon Saturday. Then his wife went into labor at 3 a.m. Sunday. Two and a half hours later, his second son was born.

The next morning, he got his first press call, from the San Francisco Chronicle, asking about the settlement. Somehow word had leaked out: Compaq and Marshall's company were planning to issue a joint release in a week, at which point he was planning on putting out a release about the future of his own company, Alta Vista Incorporated.

He still would have been under the same pressures of new fatherhood, an event for which he clearly could not have planned--but at least he could have planned the announcement: "It would have been nice to do it in the matter we planned," he said.

But yesterday morning, the Chronicle ran the story, and by the afternoon the news was everywhere. By the evening, his company had patched together a hasty release announcing its relaunch under the name PhotoLoft--with a new, hopefully less controversial site address: "www.photoloft.com."

In fairness, the controversy has come with mixed blessings, he said. Although he would have preferred that the company be able to release the information on its own schedule, he realizes that the media always love a good breaking story and this probably brought him more play than it would have had it happened in an orderly fashion.

Marshall has been constrained, however, because neither he nor Compaq can comment on the record about the details. The Chronicle reported that Compaq is paying his company $3.35 million for full use of the "Altavista.com" domain, since the name "Alta Vista" is best known online as a search engine striving for portal status.

It also appears to be a record settlement for a domain name, underscoring just how important a name is on the Net. But unlike other domain name controversies, this case did not stem from a copyright lawsuit or an alleged violation.

Marshall registered the name in 1994 after his cofounder's father thought up the name Alta Vista Technology. They thought the name was great: It started with an A, which would help when it came to listings; it means "view from above," which fit in with his company's product, digital imaging software a user downloads that then allows him to post photos on the Net; and it had that California ring to it.

Digital obviously felt the same way. In November 1995, Digital launched a search engine by the same name, intended to showcase its technology. Digital posted the engine at "www.altavista.digital.com." But users trying to find the engine were confused when they punched in "www.altavista.com" and ended up at Marshall's site instead.

So Marshall signed an agreement with Digital to sell the name. In turn, Digital would license limited use of the AltaVista name back to Marshall. Without the name, Marshall said his company would have folded because users of his product generate photo Web pages with the "Altavista.com" name in it.

But on Halloween 1996, Digital sued Marshall's company, accusing it of breaching its licensing agreement and infringing on its trademark rights. Marshall's company had been redirecting Web surfers to Digital's search engine. Digital contended users were confused because Marshall did not specifically state that his site was not the search engine.

Marshall said today that he felt the suit stemmed from a shift in strategy. Originally launched as a showcase for Digital's technology, the search engine now is battling it out with other search heavies to try to become a portal.

The lawsuit nearly killed the company, Marshall said, but the settlement was "a victory and definitely the end of a very long trauma."

Now he is focusing on getting the word out about PhotoLoft--and being a dad.

"I think it's going to work out to our benefit. We're free to go out and concentrate on what we do. The digital camera market is just exploding," he said.