Inconsistencies in UDRP Decisions


(Photo credits: Monroe’s Dragonfly)

The deeper you dig into the realm of the UDRP to more you realise that this cheap and fast procedure for fighting cybersquatting is not totally perfect, in fact, the 10 years old procedure is widely believed to be in dire need of a reform.

The most major problem with the UDRP is that its decisions consistently inconsistent. This is unsurprising as the procedure is usually conducted by lawyers from all around the globe who come from different jurisdictions and have a different understanding of the principles of the UDRP. This is combined with the fact that there is no appeal system within the UDRP and there is no strict sense of precedent to be followed by later cases. 

In order for a complainant to initiate a transfer under the UDRP, he must establish the elements of section 4(a) of the UDRP Policy:

  1. your domain name is identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or a service mark in which the complainant has rights; and
  2. you have no rights or legitimate interests in respsect of the domain name; and
  3. your domain name has been registered and is being used in bad faith.

Examples of inconsistencies can be seen in relation to the application of ALL these elements:

1- Element(1) Domain name is identical or confusingly similar.

The UDRP does not explain what is meant by confusingly similar and a diversion in opinion was established in the case of ‘sucks’ domain names. These are domain names such as walmartsucks.com where the trademark is obviously present in the domain name, but the domain name as a whole is not identical and most people would not be confused as to its relationship with the trademark owner as walmart will not be using such a domain name

Scott Donahey identified two different tests by UDRP panelists when attempting to examine this element, the first test is an objective test that simply looks at whether or not the trademark is in the domain name or not, if it is, then the domain name is capable of being confusingly similar. This was first used in the case of Britannia Building Society v Britannia Fraud Prevention and most recently applied in the case of Sermo, Inc v CatalystMD, LLC.

(WIPO says that majority agree with the objective test – for the same reasons used in cases, people who do not speak proper English might not understand the negative term and therefore get confused).

Another test occasionaly used is a subjective test which does not automatically hold a domain name confusingly similar because it contains a TM and instead attempts to look at the state of the mind of the user to see whether he would actually be confused after looking at all relevant factors. This case is similar to that used by US courts for examining TM cases. This test was used in Lockheed Martin Corporation v. Dan Parisi, it was most recently used in a trademarkrip-off.com context where the US TM law and other factors were taken into consideration to deny the success of the case under this element (Case: Citigroup Inc. and Primerica Financial Services, Inc. v. Brian Allman).

Donahey suggests that the subjective test should be abandoned and the objective test is the one to be used as the subjective factors are examined for elements 2 and 3. He also suggests that using the subjective test would allow competing company to benefit from this by using such domains and gives the example of Pepsi using the domiain cokesucks.com as a redirection to its own website.

2 – Element(2) Domain registrant’s rights and legitimate use

The UDRP again does not explain what this element means, but provides a list of non-exhaustive examples of legitimate rights.

This elements created diverging opinions in relation to domain names in criticism or free speech cases

The first opinion suggests that no legitimate criticisms rights can subsist in a domain name that is identical to the trademark of the complainant because the domain name here is used to indicate the identity of the owner and that overrides any legitimate use by the regisrant. This was most recently applied in the case of 1066 Housing Association Ltd. v. Mr. D. Morgan. (Explains the both principlesi in great details!)

The second opinion says that there is legitimate use if the registrant uses the domain name for a criticism website the use is fair and non-commercial. A recent decision here is the case of Covance  

Diverging opinions under regarding this element were also seen in regard of the usage of trademarks in the domain name of a reseller.

The most commonly applied opinion says that if the reseller “makes a bona fide oferring of goods and services” he will have a legitimate interest in the domain name. Establishing this bona-fide offering will only be established if a number of requirements can be established such as clearly identifying the relationship with the mark holder, the actual sale of the relevant goods and services, and  selling only the trademarked goods and services, and that the reseller does not corner the market in all domain names. This was first seen in the case of Oki Data Americas v ASD and was most recently seen in the case of Research in Motion Limited v. Domains by Proxy, Inc. and Kafiint. (Yet, again, these requirements were not followed by everyone, in the case of Weber-Stephen Products Co. v. Armitage Hardware 10% sale of other goods did not bar legitimate interest).

The minority opinion in this matter is a reseller cannot use a TM in his domain without the express permission of the TM owner as the right to sell TM products does not create the right to use the TM as a basis for a domain name. The first case to feature this opinion was Motorola, Inc. vs NewGate Internet, Inc and then also mentioned in The Stanley Works and Stanley Logistics, Inc. v. Camp Creek Co., Inc. and most recently applied in F. Hoffmann-La Roche AG v. Internet Climate where it was stated that “the collateral trademark use necessary to allow resale of and/or customer support in connection with the Complainant’s pharmaceutical products does not confer the right to use the trademark as a domain name“.

A third subject on which opinions diverge is the existence of legitimate interest in the creation of fan sites. It is natural for a fan site to have the name of the name of the product or person it supports and that name is usually a trade mark. Some panelists have found that a fan site does not have legitimate rights in using the trade mark because that will be a misrepresentation for being the owner of the TM and that will also prevent the TM owner from exercising therights to the mark and managing its presence on the internet.

Early sightings of this opinino were seen in the case of Estate of Gary Jennings and Joyce O. Servis v. Submachine and Joe Ross and The Estate of Tupac Shakur vs. R.J. Barranco in which the argument for this was nicely summarised:

The position asserted by the Claimant, if accepted, would effectively prohibit any fan club from being established on the Internet if it mentioned in the site name an artist’s name, where part or all of that name related to a registered mark or even perhaps transgressed claims of common law rights in a name. It would also permit persons in the position of this Claimant to unjustly enrich themselves by confiscating the work of fans and admirers in establishing a web site supporting their favorite artists without any opportunity for compensation.”

The second opinion was supported in the case of Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche v. Georg Kohler in which it was stated that “To hold otherwise may also prevent a trademark owner from validly acquiring an identical domain name which it would otherwise be entitled to in accordance with the Policy’s aim of preventing cybersquatting, minimising confusion with established trademarks and helping to assure bona fide trademark owners’ rights”.

I am more in favour of supporting the first opinion as I believe it would hard to start a fan site without having the name of the product you support in the domain name itself. The reality of these fan sites is that their operation costs can be extremely high as a huge amount of time and effort will be required to build the content and a great amount of money will have to be paid for hosting services and bandwidth. It is funny how companies attempt to sue their fans, who are in fact doing them a favour and helping them spread their message even further for free.

The power and effect of a trademark to block others from using the trademark in the context of fansites also goes beyond the scope of protection granted by most trademark laws as trademark is not a monopoly on the use a term, but the right to stop others from using it on identical goods and services and similar goods and services could be lead to the confusion of the source, that fact that another person is making commercial benefit by the mere use of the trademark on an unrelated service (the digital publication of information) does not by itself infringe another persons trademark. (Only a few famous trademarks have the right not to be diluted, but that protection is not for the majority of trademark owners.)

{The section below will be updated soon}

Famous Persons Domain Names

Generally speaking, personal name issues are not covered by the UDRP. The UDRP only covers bad faith cybersquatting in relation to trade marks. WIPO made a report which concluded that the UDRP should be expanded to cover personal name issues because the national laws of the subject matter differ greatly. However, in some cases, example: juliaroberts.com decision, the panel held that the personal name in question qualified as a common law trademark under US law and therefore was covered by the UDRP. A similar approach was used in later cases such as the morganfreeman.com decision. This link to common law trademarks blocked the use of the UDRP for other personal names such as that of Kathleen Kennedy as her poltical fame was insufficient to create a common law trademark which requires commercial use. Though the reasoning is clear, this creates a gap in protection and incosistency for the scope of the UDRP across different jurisidctions as common law trademarks are not present in civil law jurisidctions.

Geographical Names Domain Names

Just like names of famous persons, geographical names are generally not covered by the UDRP, yet in the decision related to the Barcelona.com the UDRP was successfully used to transfer the domain name to a spanish government agency because under Spanish law it was possible for the government agency to acquire a trademark for it, however, other hurders under the UDRP require proving that the respondent had no ligitimate right to use the domain name, which is hard to establish as any business relating to Barcelona might reasonably choose to have the name of the location in its domain name, but the panel decided unreasonably to balance the rights of parties and held in favour of the complainant. However, in the majority of other cases, such as that involving Brisbane.com, it was held that geographical names were not covered by the UDRP and therefore were not to be transfered to the complainant.

Application of Other Laws to the Procedure

The rules of the UDRP permit the panelist to apply the laws of any jurisdiction when making his decision as he sees fit. The application of this rule into the decisions was done in an incosistent manner, for example, in some cases the panel explicity stated that the no jurisidction rules are to be applied to when assessing the case as the domains in question relate to a global matter (example: Shirmax Retail), this statement was made even though both parties are from the same jurisdiction. In some other cases, the panel thought it was appropriate to use laws of a certain jurisidction when both parties are from the same jurisidction (e.g. Madonna Ciccone), and in some other cases, the panel decided to apply principles of the jurisidiction of the respondent (e.g. Harrods Limited). And it does not stop here, in some other cases the panel decided to use the laws of a third jurisidction just because the panel thought it would be helpful to the courts (e.g. Wal-Mart Stores Inc V Walmarket Canada). This unpredictability in the application of other laws greatly impacts all other aspects of the proceeding as the application could be to any part of the UDRP. 

So is there a solution? It is clear that inconsistency is a major problem with the UDRP, this is probably amplified by the fact there is no internal procedure for the challenging a decision by the panel nor there is any appeal system. It is suggested that the introduction of an appeal system into the UDRP will help in building precedent binding on all initial panels and therefor rectifying incosistency issues. 

However, some think that the introduction of an appeal system will diminish the benefits of the UDRP (costs and speed), yet this damange to these benefits could be minimised by restricting the appeal procedure to issues which could affect the development of UDRP and which would be conducted through strict time limits. The costs could be minimised by the introduction of a small fee to all domain name registrations or an appeal fee added to each UDRP case.

The inconsistencies could also be resolved by curing the source of the problem: the UDRP criteria for transferring the domain names. Many terms in the UDRP are not defined. Clarifying the aspects which caused different interpreations (such as “confusingly similar”) will help minimize the opportunities for divergence.

ICANN may also develop a guideline to be used by panelists when interpreting the UDRP. WIPO publishes on its website a number of selected questions for which it provided the answers for on the basis of previous decisions, and though not binding on the panels, the publications by WIPO are regularly cited by the panels and have in fact helped reduce the inconsistency in some of the issues (example, reseller right to use the TM in the domain name most recent case). However, for several questions, WIPO acknowledges the fact that there is more than one opinion and simply provides both view points leaving it up to the panelists to pick the one he likes. The guidelines by ICANN should have definite answers for these issues and should define terms and concepts which proved to be problematice in the UDRP and specify which test are to be used for different elements.

It is widely believed that the UDRP is one of the most successful internet dispute resolution methods ever created and that the problems with it are minor in comparison to the benefit of it. That said, the UDRP is merely an administrative procedure that is not enforceable by any court, so it is not expected to have accurate standards of a judicial system, especially as any part can initiate a court action at any time.

The statement in the last paragraph might be true in theory, but in practice the majority of respondants do not usually have the resouces to litigate after they lose their domain name especially if the registrar resides in another country, that makes the majority of UDRP decisions final.

I think that the decisions of the UDRP are in fact inconsistent to a level that makes it impossible to predict what the out come will be in certain cases. I was just looking at the case of BankSohar.com and the panel held that the registration date was a factor to be taken into consideration in deciding the first element while it was clear in the WIPO publication of selected questions and many previous cases that the date at which the trade mark was registered is irrelevant to the first element and is to be considered when assessing bad faith. That point by itself meant that BankSohar lost its case.

But the fact that the UDRP survived with no changes for the past 10 years, it is very unlikely for it to be updated now, especially as ICANN and WIPO do not acknowledge the existence of the problem or at least make it sound nominal.

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