Mixing Oil with Water: Resolving the Differences between Domain Names and Trademark Law

By Nilsen, Jonathan O. | The Journal of High Technology Law, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Mixing Oil with Water: Resolving the Differences between Domain Names and Trademark Law


Nilsen, Jonathan O., The Journal of High Technology Law


"The Internet has evolved from its inception as primarily a research network into a full-blown commercial marketplace." (1)

I. INTRODUCTION

Trademarks exist as an important aspect of businesses. (2) Businesses today demonstrate the importance they place on their trademarks by the amount of money invested in their mark. (3) Registering a company logo as a federal trademark gives the mark owner protection from other parties using the mark without the owner's permission. (4) Trademark law also grants protection for the mark even if the owner did not register the mark. (5) The granted protection consists of preventing another party from using the same or similar mark in commerce. (6) Similar to the use of trademarks in the real world, an owner's permission to use the mark is also needed on the Internet. (7)

The most recent source of conflict involving trademarks on the Internet deals with domain names, or the addresses by which companies may be located on the Internet. (8) The growing number of disputes over electronic addresses demonstrates one of the more visible examples of a new area that appears to have outpaced established legal doctrine. (9) Creating a domain name that appears similar to the company's name is important because it is that company name that Internet users ("users") will search for on the Internet. (10) In order to protect the domain name from being used or misused by other parties, the company would need to register it, even if the company name is already a trademark. (11) The National Science Foundation ("NSF") created a registry for the purpose of registering domain names. (12)

II. TRADEMARK LAW

The goal of real world trademark law is to prevent consumer confusion as to the source of some product. (13) In addition, trademark law aims to prevent parties from free-riding on the goodwill of an established mark. (14) Trademark law grants to the mark owner the right to exclude others from employing confusingly similar marks in commerce. (15)

The Internet provides an opportunity for any party, no matter how large or small, to receive notice from the Internet community, in terms of making other users aware of the party's presence. Further, the Internet allows not only companies to operate on it, but private individuals and non-profit organizations as well. People post websites about their families, write editorials on particular subjects, and find "meeting places" for others with similar interests. (16) Trademark law inherently involves businesses. The Internet does not automatically identify parties according to whether they operate for profit or not. When a system of law that necessarily treats all parties as businesses is applied to a system that makes no such distinctions, that system imposes a law that does not apply to all concerned parties. Trademark law needs to address the issue of how to protect trademarks from being improperly registered as domain names without permission by the mark owner without significantly impairing the registration of other domain names.

Trademark law must not only incorporate non-profit marks, but also acknowledge and accommodate a more restricted, but at times more lenient, medium in the Internet than trademark law is accustomed to dealing with. (17) The structure of the Internet only allows a party to register one particular configuration of letters. (18) The structure of the Internet therefore creates a problem for traditional trademark law since the law usually makes allowances for multiple registrations of the same word under the doctrine of concurrent use. (19) Taking the inherent restrictions of the Internet into account may mean allowing a more lenient standard for similarity of marks. (20)

Fusing one world that incorporates both personal and business interests with another one that only deals with business interests results in a tricky process. The amalgamation must incorporate the purpose of each model while resolving the conflicts between the two systems. …

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