How to Fight Back Against Cybersquatters Who Sit on Personal Domain Names

You’ve probably already googled yourself, but what about looking up your personal domain name?  You might be surprised what you find. Although some people’s personal names might be registered to a company or a professional located in a far-away state or country, for many people, their name may be sitting primarily unusued because it has been “parked” by a cybersquatter.  At least, until the right price comes along.

Fortunately, there is a law which is designed to protect individuals whose personal name URL has been captured and held hostage by a cybersquatter.  The Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125 et. seq. (“ACPA”), was passed by Congress for the very purpose of protecting individuals and trademark holders against cybersquatters who register internet domain names containing trademarks or real names without that person’s consent with the specific intent to profit from such name by selling the domain name for financial gain.

15 USC § 8131 states as follows:

Any person who registers a domain name that consists of the name of another living person, or a name substantially and confusingly similar thereto, without that person’s consent, with the specific intent to profit from such name by selling the domain name for financial gain to that person or any third party, shall be liable in a civil action by such person.

In any civil action brought under § 8131, a court may award injunctive relief, including the forfeiture or cancellation of the domain name or the transfer of the domain name to the plaintiff. The court may also, in its discretion, award costs and attorneys fees to the prevailing party.  That’s a big “stick” intended to get cybersquatters to comply.

I recently had a client contact me whose personal name URL had been clearly grabbed up by a cybersquatter looking to sell for profit.  The website that was parked at the domain looked like a crude search engine.  A banner ad at the top of the page announced that “this URL is for sale.”  They wanted $1,700 to release the person’s name.

It was clear that this website was nothing more than a bare bones, basic “site” parked temporarily.

Cybersquatters typically erect a minimal site for the purpose of qualifying under the “work of authorship” exception under 15 USC § 8131(B).  Under this exception, a person who in good faith registers a domain name and then builds a “work of authorship” is not considered a cybersquatter or subject to the penalties under § 8131.

In fact, in our case the client had actually contacted the owner of the domain numerous times over the years regarding ownership of the URL.  Each time, the client was solicited to pay thousands of dollars to purchase the URL.  Each of these solicitations helped us to craft an argument that the owner of the URL had the specific intent to profit from selling the name.

The next question for us was what to do about this apparent violation of the ACPA. Our options were as follows:

  • send a demand letter to the registered owner of the domain, which is typically available via public records
  • File a lawsuit in federal court under the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, or
  • Try to mediate the dispute through Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy with  ICANN, the international body that controls domain names.

Sending a demand letter to the cybersquatter is the cheapest of these options, although there is a risk the cybersquatter will simply ignore the demand.  Filing a lawsuit to recover the domain name could quickly cost more than the few thousand dollars being demanded for the URL. And mediation costs $2,000 for 1-5 domain names.

Therein lies the rub.  The cybersquatters typically charge just enough for their URLs that they’ll make a profit, but not so much that a person will go to the trouble and expense of hiring a lawyer and filing a lawsuit or filing a request for mediation.  Of course, some cybersquatters charge far more than $1,700 for a person’s name and it is worth it to pursue these methods.

John Corcoran is an Associate with Plastiras & Terrizzi law firm in San Rafael, California (Marin County).  He advises clients on small business issues, intellectual property, real estate matters, estate planning, and general civil litigation.  He may be reached at jcorcoran@ptlegal.com or (415) 472-8100 x211.

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