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Microsoft puts cybersquatters on notice

Tech titan files three lawsuits accusing Web site operators of profiting illegally from domain names that use its trademarks.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
Microsoft on Tuesday launched a new offensive against cybersquatters who allegedly gain illegal profits from thousands of Web sites, such as WindowsLiveTutorial.com and HaloChamp.com, that include the company's trademarked names.

Redmond filed three lawsuits in federal court this week claiming that some Web site operators have registered and operate hundreds of domain names with the sole purpose of reaping "bad faith" profits and in violation of federal and state laws.

Two of the complaints, filed in Utah and California, name known individuals accused of running more than 400 such sites. A third "John Doe" complaint is aimed at unmasking alleged cybersquatters, affiliated with 217 different domain names, who have paid privacy protection services to have their registration information shielded.

The litigation marks the first time Microsoft has filed suits stemming exclusively from a 1999 law called the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, or ACPA, although it has raised cybersquatting allegations in past suits against alleged phishers and spammers, company attorney Aaron Kornblum said in a telephone interview. ACPA subjects anyone who "registers, traffics in or uses a domain name that is identical to, confusingly similar or dilutive of" an existing trademark to up to $100,000 in damages.

"We've seen a tremendous rush on domain name registration...in particular with domain names containing Microsoft intellectual property," Kornblum said. "This effort is designed to more aggressively protect our customers trying to visit Microsoft Web properties as well as protect Microsoft's brands and domains online."

Designed to target those who registered the largest number of allegedly infringing domain names, the new suits are part of Microsoft's broader plan to beef up its crackdown on cybersquatters and "typosquatters," in which a person registers a name similar to a highly trafficked site, except riddled with a subtle spelling error. The company also announced plans to expand its crackdown on resale of such domain names on Internet auction sites.

The tactic used by the sites named in the lawsuits reflects a change in the cybersquatting "ecosystem," Kornblum said. In the past, cybersquatting more frequently referred to sitting on popular domain names and essentially holding them for ransom. The sites targeted by Microsoft involve registrations of large numbers of domains by a single entity filled with online ads aimed at generating click-through revenues. Kornblum said he wasn't sure how much money the sites in question had made for their operators but hoped the litigation process would reveal that information.

The domain name owners named in the complaint were not immediately available for comment.

On an average day, more than 2,000 sites containing Microsoft trademarks are registered, according to watchdogs with Internet Identity, a Tacoma, Wash., company hired by Microsoft several years ago to monitor domain name registrations. They estimated that about 75 percent are owned by professional domain name holding corporations and that 90 percent of all registrations occur among those hoping for illegal profits.

Combating alleged cybersquatters is not a new focus for Microsoft. The company began keeping a close eye on domain names several years ago because it noticed that Internet fraudsters frequently used them to dupe unsuspecting visitors into handing over, say, sensitive bank account information, Kornblum said. For the past few years, the company's research arm has been engaged in a project called the Typo-Patrol, which produced software designed to scan URLs for typos and reveal the owners of domain names.

Microsoft also earned notoriety in 2004 over reports that it had threatened a 17-year-old Canadian student named Mike Rowe to turn over the domain name MikeRoweSoft.com. After admitting it had been overaggressive in its handling of the situation, the company reached an agreement with Rowe, who ceded control of the site in exchange for various Microsoft services including a new Xbox game system.