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WIPO deals with domain disputes

The group is collecting public comments in its quest to work out a system for handling disputes over Net domain names.

In an attempt to quell heated trademark disputes over Internet domain names, the World Intellectual Property Organization is working on recommendations for dealing with the growing problem.

The WIPO announced this week that it is collecting public comments to develop a plan that addresses global squabbles over domain names. The recommendation will be passed on to the new organization that is being set up, under the direction of the U.S. government, to oversee the Net site naming system.

In its domain name system Dueling domains (DNS) white paper, the Clinton administration called on the WIPO to create a policy that balances the rights of trademark holders in the offline world and Web sites that have branded their businesses with a domain name, such as the exclusively online bookseller Amazon.com.

The WIPO's involvement in putting together the domain dispute policy is significant because it signals the beginning of a transfer of power over the domain name system from the United States to a global body. The European Union, for one, has openly protested the United States' control over the global network, and has criticized U.S. proposals for changing the DNS for being too U.S.-centric.

The WIPO also has a consistent track record for dealing with global disputes over issues such as piracy and trademarks, for example.

Companies such as Sprint and Microsoft and even the White House have tangled with lesser-known entities over the use of Net domain names. In the offline business world, numerous parties can register a name or term as a trademark as long as the products don't compete in the same market or cause consumer confusion. But on the Net, only one company can register the domain name "www.sprint.com," for example.

Now the WIPO is kicking off its effort to set up a trademark dispute policy for domain names that could be adopted by registries around the world. The deadline for public comment is August 17, and the recommendations will be published on March 1, 1999, the organization said.

"While domain names were originally intended to perform only the technical function of facilitating connectivity between computers through the Internet, domain names have, because of their easy-to-remember and human-friendly form, come to constitute business identifiers," the organization stated.

"With the growth of the Internet, domain names have come into conflict with trademarks," it continued. "The possibility of such conflict arises from the lack of connection between the system for registering trademarks, on the one hand, and the system for registering domain names, on the other hand."

The domain registration system further complicates the situation because domains are handed out on a first-come, first-served basis.

This has put the primary registrar, Network Solutions (NSI), in the hot seat to deal with trademark disputes. According to NSI's policy, if the owner of a federally registered trademark challenges the use of a domain name, in most cases the name will be put on hold after 90 days if the situation is not resolved between the parties. If one party sues, use of the name is put in the hands of the court.

NSI's dispute policy has been criticized by groups that were working to overhaul the DNS.

NSI holds a U.S. government contract to be the registrar for the top-level domains, but the agreement runs out September 30. The Clinton administration white paper calls for the formation of a new, nonprofit private-sector group to maintain the functions NSI has performed thus far.

The WIPO said its current focus is "to obtain consensus among all the stakeholders of the Internet on the issues signaled in the white paper."

The WIPO's report will address dispute prevention, resolution, a process for protecting famous trademarks, and the addition of new generic top-level domains, which now include ".com," ".edu," ".org," and ".net."