Firms Fight Back in Site Name Game

By Catherine Rampell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

What's in a name? Maybe a business strategy.

Michael Patalano, college student and Disney fanatic, likes guessing what his favorite company is up to by tracking which Web sites Disney Enterprises registers.

Patalano discovered that Disney registered names like http://yaymestarringlondontipton.com and http://fenwickssuitmovie.com-- signaling the company's interest in securing sites that could be related to its TV show "The Suite Life with Zack & Cody" and a popular children's book, respectively. Patalano said his biggest scoop came when he discovered the name of Disney's sequel to "National Treasure" -- "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" -- before Disney had announced it, setting his fellow Internet fans abuzz.

"I'm a fan of practically everything Disney," he said. "This was another way to find out what they're up to."

Shielding a company's brand from early or negative exposure has become a business unto itself. On the advice of digital brand-management services and lawyers, many companies register thousands of names to protect themselves. Every time they launch products or services, executives have to worry about shielding their moves online from competitors and protecting themselves from users who might sully their brand.

And while Patalano has set up an automated feature on his site, http://disneyenquirer.com, to track Disney's registrations, Disney is an exception for keeping these Web properties public. Most major companies turn to private registration companies such as Domains by Proxy, which registers the names on behalf of companies to mask their identities.

Disney did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Whether publicly or privately, many of the companies that register domain names strategically do so for defensive reasons as well. Mike Denning, VeriSign's general manager of digital brand management services, said 50 percent of his larger clients' domain portfolios -- which include about 10,000 domains -- are defensive domains. MarkMonitor, a domain registrar and brand management company, said 90 percent of its clients' portfolios are defensive domains.

Many of these defensive domains are registered by companies trying to prevent disgruntled customers from gaining attention through a "gripe site," typically a domain with the trademarked name of the offending company with descriptive suffixes or prefixes. Some of these sites have become quite successful; http://paypalsucks.com and http://sweetjesusihatebilloreilly.com, for example, are in the first page of hits in Google searches for PayPal and Bill O'Reilly, respectively.

To prevent similar public-relations debacles, companies buy up swaths of negative domain names featuring their trademark. Sprint owns http://ihatesprint.com, and Capital One owns http://capitaloneisevil.com. Wal-Mart, which has been embroiled in several disputes over sites using its trademark negatively, has registered http://walmartunion.biz and virtually every domain containing the words "child labor" and "Wal-Mart."

"The companies most likely to register these sites are ones that are very sensitive to customer complaints," said Enrico Schaefer, a technology lawyer in Traverse City, Mich.

The Washington Post Co. has a colorful domain collection. The company owns http://washingtonpostconfusion.com, http://satanlovesthewashingtonpost.com and http://thewashingtonpostspeakstojesus.com. All these sites were transferred to The Post after it sued their previous owner for trademark infringement.

Schaefer said he typically advises his clients to "be very proactive about identifying potential" gripe sites so they never materialize.

"You could chase that dog forever, though," said VeriSign's Denning. "We really don't recommend that as a broad-based strategy, since there's really no end for negative sites."

The bigger problem, according to brand-management experts, is cybersquatting, in which people buy the domain of a well-known trademark or some variation of it. Today most big companies know to register their trademarks as domains right away, so cybersquatters typically register domains with a misspelled trademark or a domain that a company accidentally let expire. The Web site will then be filled with pay-per-click ads, or perhaps a link to a competitor, or maybe something even more damaging for the brand.

"One time a large private game reserve came to us right before they were about to a do a full-page ad in the New York Times," Schaefer said. "Their domain accidentally lapsed, and it suddenly turned into an animal porn site."

For a fee, companies such as Arlington-based Cyveillance monitor new domain registrations that might infringe on their clients' trademarks. Because it's difficult to anticipate every misspelling of a trademark, companies worried about fraud also sometimes search domain registry databases by domain owner or IP address to catch known cybersquatters.

"A small entity in Sri Lanka registered http://homedepot.biz, and when we filed an action against them, they claimed they'd never heard of us and only thought it was a nice name for soccer club," said Steve Levy, Home Depot's senior legal director. "When we saw they'd also registered http://britneyspears.biz and http://sprint.biz, we knew we had a case."


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