A THURSDAY ARTICLE ALSO GAVE AN INCORRECT VALUE FOR FORMER SURGEON GENERAL C. EVERETT KOOP'S SHARES IN THE COMPANY CO-FOUNDED BY HIM. AS OF THE CLOSE OF TRADING ON WEDNESDAY, HIS SHARES WERE WORTH ABOUT $4.5 MILLION. (PUBLISHED 06/12/99)
What's in a name on the Internet? If it's famous enough, potentially millions.
In recent months, a procession of celebrities who have built their reputations in traditional fields has jumped headlong into cyberspace.
Former U.S. surgeon general C. Everett Koop, who in 1997 named a medical information Web site for himself, earned tens of millions of dollars in stock Tuesday when Drkoop.com made a smashing Wall Street debut. The same day, CNN Financial News anchor Lou Dobbs was closing shop on the Cable News Network to join a space-themed Internet company with hopes of rocketing into the online stock galaxy. It was a few weeks after Dobbs's CNN colleague, longtime war correspondent Peter Arnett, quit to join a start-up of his own on the World Wide Web, an international news service called Foreigntv.com.
Such is the lure of the new electronic realm where recognizability -- having a marquee name, or "brand" -- can breed hopes of heady paper riches. The chain of events is beginning to seem perfunctory: Familiarity can bring in eyeballs, which can bring in advertising, which can seduce speculative investors. In most cases, it takes years and millions of dollars in marketing to establish an Internet brand. That's how household online names like Yahoo, America Online Inc. and Amazon.com built themselves.
But when your name is established coming in -- as are Koop's, Dobbs's and Arnett's -- that can provide an instant brand. In some ways, Internet ventures are learning the lesson taught by movies, television, books and other traditional media -- that celebrity sells. But one difference on the Web is that there are relatively low entry costs: For example, Koop didn't need to rely on a big media conglomerate to back, market and distribute his product. And, because of the stock market's wild enthusiasm for Internet issues, there is great potential for preposterously high paper payoffs.
"If Lou Dobbs's name alone can generate income, he doesn't need printing presses or a TV network for distribution," said Jonathan Moskin, an intellectual property lawyer at the law firm Pennie and Edmonds in New York, who has been involved in several Internet trademark disputes.
"The Internet allows famous people to engage in guerrilla marketing," said Robbin Zeff, an Internet marketing analyst based in Arlington. "They can in effect brand themselves."
Still, Dobbs and Arnett would be greater assets if their names were Internet destinations themselves. For instance, PeterArnett.com and LouDobbs.com would be natural draws to foreign and financial news Web sites, respectively.
Koop's "branding" impact is more tangible. It goes without saying that the hypothetical Dr. Joe Smith would not have made millions of dollars on paper Tuesday if he took a medical Web site called "Drsmith.com" public after 29 months.
As such, disputes over online naming rights have been rampant. In the freewheeling realm of the Internet, anyone can register any Internet name that's not already taken, said Christopher Clough, a spokesman for Network Solutions Inc., the Reston firm that oversees Internet address registration.
This has spawned a practice that Drew Ianni, an online advertising analyst at Jupiter Communications Group in New York, calls "virtual hostage-taking" -- in which a person buys up countless familiar Internet addresses and offers to sell them for tens of thousands of dollars (as opposed to the $75 NSI charges initially to register domain names).
In response, Rob Moritz has become a kind of guardian hero of online names. Moritz heads a group called "The Friend to Friend Foundation," based in Lenexa, Kan., which has spent vast sums of cash -- he won't say how much -- registering "famous" names online. Then, Moritz gives the Internet address to the person with the matching name, free of charge.
"I'm doing this as a goodwill, humanitarian gesture," he said. "I'm trying to bring some sanity to the process."
According to his site (www.friendtofriend.com), he has helped protect the online domain names of Art Garfunkel, Kelsey Grammer, Frankie Avalon and many others. He's received about 70 letters of thanks from grateful celebrities, most of which have poured in since "virtual hostage-taking" became rampant.
"What a wonderful thing you've done," wrote actor Jeff Bridges in a note posted on the site. The estate of Eva Gabor donated 50 wigs to Moritz's foundation in gratitude. Peter Falk sent some original artwork.
"I've gotten a lot of neat stuff," Moritz said.
But no stock shares. Yet.
Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.
C. Everett Koop
Pre-Internet: Surgeon, U.S. surgeon general, anti-smoking crusader.
Current Internet links: On Tuesday, launched the initial public offering of his Web site, Drkoop.com. His shares are valued at about $56 million.
Pre-Internet: Anchor of CNN's financial news show "Moneyline"; president of CNN Financial News.
Current Internet links: Plans to launch an Internet venture called Space.com on July 20, in which he will have a substantial equity stake.
Pre-Internet: CNN reporter for 18 years.
Current Internet links: Recently signed on with Foreigntv.com, which will air Arnett's interviews of world leaders and other international video reports.