by Aimée Bissonette
Have you ever tried to locate information on the World Wide Web about a well known business or individual? If so, you probably used a search engine like Google or Yahoo. Maybe you looked for information on Wikipedia. Or perhaps, you searched by domain name, typing in the name of the business or individual followed by “.com,” “.net,” or “.org.”
For example, until November of 2007, if Internet users tried to locate information via a domain name search about Lee Iacocca, the internationally known, former president of the Chrysler Corporation, they probably were surprised and even a bit confused by what they found. That’s because, before November 2007, “leeiacocca.com” took users to a website featuring pop-up advertising, pay-per-click advertisements, and hyper-links to other commercial websites. Nowhere on the website did users find information about Mr. Iacocca, his businesses, or his achievements because Mr. Iacocca had nothing to do with the website. The only connection the website had to Mr. Iacocca was its name. Lee Iacocca, like many others, was a victim of cybersquatting.
Who was behind the “leeiacocca.com” website? A Texas-based company whose sole intention was to profit from Mr. Iacocca’s personality and image. Without Mr. Iacocca’s permission or knowledge, this company registered the domain name “leeiacocca.com” and set up a website (a practice known as “domain parking” or “cybersquatting”).
Cybersquatting is big business. Cybersquatters intentionally choose the names of well known people or products and register them as domain names. This costs as little as $15-20 per name. (There currently is no requirement that registrants prove they have a right to use a name when they register it.) Cybersquatters then set up money making websites intended to draw Internet users who otherwise would have no reason to visit the sites. The practice is so profitable, cybersquatters are continually expanding their reach. They’ve moved well beyond high profile businesses and figures like Mr. Iacocca.
In essence, if cybersquatters believe your name or product is well known enough to create some internet traffic, they are more than happy to pay the nominal registration fee for a chance to highjack your identity and profit off of you. Children’s authors and illustrators need to be concerned. At least one prominent children’s author already has been victimized by cybersquatters. The author’s name, as well as the name of the author’s award-winning novel, were registered by the same Texas-based company that registered Mr. Iacocca’s name.
Cybersquatting victims have few options. Victims can try to negotiate a resolution, which usually involves making a monetary payment to the cybersquatter; or can file an arbitration action under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy, an option that frequently results in the domain name being transferred to the party whose name was co-opted, but which requires hiring an attorney and payment of fees in the range of $4,000. (This is what Mr. Iacocca had to do. He prevailed at arbitration and the Texas-based company was ordered to transfer the leeiacocca.com domain name to Mr. Iacocca, but the full cost of the proceeding was Mr. Iacocca’s to bear.) In some instances, victims have recourse under federal law, too, but pursuing an action in federal court can be lengthy and costly.
So what can authors and illustrators do? Plan ahead. The easiest and best way to thwart cybersquatters is to be proactive and register the domain names that you think others would most likely use to find you. This includes registering your full name (first name followed by surname followed by the most common URL endings like .com or .net). If one or more of your books is a bestseller, an award nominee or winner, or otherwise is widely known, register the title of your book, as well. The cost of registering even multiple domain names is small. And it’s a particularly good investment when you consider what could be at stake if a cybersquatter hijacks your name.
In time, the law may change and arbitration rules may be amended so that cybersquatters have more to lose. Maybe then preying on others’ names and reputations will stop. For now, prevention is the best course of action. Register your own domain names to ensure your readers find you first and that the only one profiting off your internet identity is you.
Aimée has worked as a lawyer, teacher, and writer for more than 20 years. Through Little Buffalo Law & Consulting, she helps her clients understand legal and ethical issues, institute compliance and training programs, and develop best practices for their businesses. She has negotiated book contracts on behalf of writers, including children’s book contracts with Clarion and Boyd’s Mills Press. She is a member of CLN and currently is working on her own middle grade novel.