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AU President Challenges Web Site That Bears His Name

By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2004; Page C01

American University student Ben Wetmore had a few options when it came to naming his Web site devoted to commentary and criticism about his school.

He could have used his own name, like Matt Drudge of drudgereport.com fame. Or he could have contrived something that hinted at his site's mission -- say, auwatch.com.

Benjamin Ladner says the site trades on "the goodwill" of his name. (Billy Howard)

Instead, Wetmore chose to use an address that he knew would have instant recognition among his classmates while evoking the target of much of his ire: the name of the university president.

Now the president wants his name back.

Two and a half years after Wetmore started the Web site -- and a year after he graduated -- attorneys for AU President Benjamin Ladner have filed a complaint challenging Wetmore's right to the Web address www.benladner.com, saying the site unfairly trades on "the goodwill" associated with Ladner's name.

"Confusion exists about this Web site," said attorney Sherri N. Blount. Visitors to the site "think it's the official Web site of the president of American University, but it's not."

Blount filed the complaint with a nonprofit entity called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which is set up to resolve disputes over who has the right to a particular address. It has been used by major corporations and such celebrities as Julia Roberts to shut down Web sites that attempt to exploit their trademarks or famous names.

Yet legal experts say Ladner could have a much harder time asserting his right to the domain that bears his name. To put it bluntly, he may not be famous enough.

"Where someone is much more famous, it would be easier to say this name should be considered similar to a trademark," said Julie E. Cohen, a law professor at Georgetown University and an intellectual property expert.

"Most people in the country have no idea who Ben Ladner is," she said. "On the other hand, it's clear these students do know who Ben Ladner is."

This is not the first time Wetmore -- a 23-year-old Texas native now living in Alexandria -- has found himself in a murky intellectual property dispute with the university. In spring 2002, the student activist was arrested by campus police while he tried to videotape a speech by Tipper Gore without permission. Though administrators claimed that Wetmore's actions amounted to theft of Gore's intellectual property, the student's case was embraced by free-speech watchdogs who saw it as an attempt to quash First Amendment freedoms. A campus disciplinary panel put him on probation.

Even before then, Wetmore had made a name for himself on campus -- and complicated his relationship with the university administration -- with his Web site devoted largely to criticizing Ladner.

Wetmore said the Web journal was inspired by his friends' complaints about life at AU, particularly a string of 5 percent tuition increases. "At the end of the day, we figured out there was one emblematic problem -- the buck stopped with Ben Ladner," he said, explaining the name choice. "It all tied back to him."

Wetmore said he spent about $20 to reserve the benladner.com address through a Yahoo domain registrar in December 2001. He started the site about a month later.

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