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.
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.
"It wasn't a full publication so much," Wetmore acknowledged. "It was more Drudge Report than Washington Post," including photos of Ladner's official residence and weekend home, which the Web site referred to as "mansions" and declared "almost as good as MTV's Cribs."
Though Wetmore still owns the domain name, he has handed off control of the site to a new generation of AU students, and it has evolved into a somewhat more traditional news publication, with stories about student volunteer projects and administrative hires. Jeff Behrens, the current editor in chief, said the site has a reliable staff of about 10 students but still struggles to keep publishing.
After Wetmore, who is representing himself in the case, files his response with the Internet names group, the matter will be considered by a three-person arbitration panel.
This procedure was created to provide a quick way to mediate allegations of "cybersquatting," said Wayne State University law professor Jessica Litman, an Internet law specialist, "without having to go to court and pay a lawyer."
Yet the panels can come up with quick responses only in clear-cut cases, she said, "where the registrant has no legitimate right to the name, or has registered it in bad faith, or is making money from it, or is trying to divert trade or fool people."
But the Ladner case, she said, is not so clear-cut. Some panelists, she said, may declare that Ladner has rights to shut down an address that could be confused as his, while "others may say: 'This is legitimate speech. This is absolutely protected.' "
There is also the question of whether Wetmore, who now works for a conservative leadership training organization, has used Ladner's name with commercial intent. Behrens noted that the Web site has virtually no money -- not even enough to hire a lawyer in this matter. But Ladner's attorney, Blount, notes that the site does at least attempt to get paid advertising.
And there will be the question of how much value Ladner can claim accrues to his name. According to an article in Legal Times, Ted Turner and Jerry Falwell failed to prevail with preliminary challenges because they couldn't demonstrate that their names had a worth comparable to trademarks -- because those names, despite their renown, were not associated with commercial goods.