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Trademark fight continues

The debate over who rightfully owns a domain name is underscored by the trademark battle between media giant Viacom and a Web site creator in Delaware.

When Larry Buck launched a Web site offering informative tidbits about classic television to supplement his personal income, he never expected that it would place him in the middle of a trademark dispute with media conglomerate Viacom.

Buck isn't the first Web publisher to go toe-to-toe with a major corporation over a domain name. In fact, how to handle trademark disputes has become the cornerstone of an international debate over the future of the domain name system. (See related story)

Buck launched TVLand in January 1995, initially through an existing alternate Internet address. He applied and received a trademark for the name "TVLand" through the state of Delaware a year later, and registered the domain name "tvland.com" through Network Solutions' InterNIC domain registry by November 1995.

He operated the site without incident until Viacom launched its own TVLand on April 29, 1996. Buck featured a link to Viacom's site, the Web home of its television network devoted to classic television programming, until the media company requested that he remove it.

Buck said he received a letter from Viacom a couple of months ago, demanding that he cease and desist from using "TVLand" for business purposes, after the company had registered the name as a federal trademark.

Around the same time, he began receiving letters from Network Solutions (NSI), informing him that Viacom had initiated a domain name dispute. Thirty days later, his site was temporarily suspended pending the outcome of the dispute. "They shut me down until we can settle it," Buck said.

Network Solutions' policy on domain name disputes gives preference to federal trademarks over state trademarks, according to Gil Silberman, an attorney with Britton & Silberman, who has handled cases involving domain name disputes in the past. According to Silberman, this policy is being upheld in this case even though Buck held a state trademark on "TVLand" before Viacom registered the name federally.

"He has to convince Viacom either by court order or by agreement" that he is the rightful holder of the trademarked name, Silberman said. "Even with a weak legal claim, in the case of domain names, the NSI policy strongly favors federal trademark owners over domain name owners."

"They're not really disputing that I didn't own the name 'tvland'," Buck asserted. "All they're making sure of is that I didn't have the domain name."

Buck's site's status is "on hold" as of November 3, according to Internic. Buck cannot regain use of the domain name unless he takes Viacom to court. Had Buck filed a lawsuit before his site was shut down, he could have prevented the suspension of his Web address, Silberman noted. "Had he launched a lawsuit before he took it down, they would have suspended the procedure. Their policy encourages lawsuits."

Viacom would not comment on the details of the dispute. "We are simply protecting our intellectual property," said a Viacom spokesman.

Ironically, neither site is currently using the domain name "tvland." Buck's site is using an alternate address until the dispute is settled, and Viacom won't get the domain name unless it can prove that Buck was infringing on its trademark.

As for Buck, he is prepared to fight Viacom in the courts for the right to use the name that he says he registered first. "I'm going to give 'em hell," Buck said. "I'm not going away."