Trademark law in new domain on Web

October 14, 1997|By NEWSDAY

A catchy song came from Richard Conway's radio. "If you wannabe my lover, you gotta get with my friends," sang the Spice Girls, as their first single "Wannabe" crashed into the British pop charts last year.

Conway sensed the groundswell around the band, which would go on to make tens of millions of dollars over the next year. So Conway went to the Internet, did a search for http: //www. and found it was unregistered. And so, like the domain-name pioneers and homesteaders of years gone by, Conway snapped up for the standard $100 fee.

"I started an unofficial fan page straight away and put it on a few search engines and got quite popular fairly instantly," said Conway, 22, who lives in London and, it should be noted, is in the business of buying and selling domain names. Nowadays, about 200,000 people visit Conway's site every month.

The practice of buying corporate domain names and holding them for ransom or trying to sell them back to the corporate entity involved has largely died down. Although a few companies have paid for domain names, most just let their lawyers loose on the upstart who has the false impression that anyone can steal a trademark just because it's on the Internet. Network Solutions, the Virginia company that runs the Internet domain registry, has introduced rules to prevent this situation from occurring anymore.

But Conway's site has survived.

"I got a letter from the Spice Girls' lawyer at Harbottle and Lewis," Conway said. "They accused me, saying I have no right to use the name and they had the right to it and they said I was passing myself off as them. That's totally incorrect as my site says it's an unofficial site and has nothing to do with the Spice Girls."

Conway, whose site provides a link to the official Spice Girls site -- http: // -- refused to roll over.

"I wrote back saying there was no way I'm passing myself off ... if you want to sue me you can," he said.

He hasn't heard from the firm since March.

"There's nothing they can do really," he says. "The only law regarding domain names is trademark law and the Spice Girls didn't register it as a trademark."

Of course, saying the Spice Girls are not like a product brand name is a tenuous legal argument, says Carl Oppedahl, a Colorado patents lawyer who specializes in domain-name issues.

"I would have thought that they would have as much right to the words 'Spice Girls' as the Elvis Presley estate has to the words 'Elvis Presley,' " Oppedahl says.

It's perhaps not surprising that Conway says he would be willing to part with spice -- at a price.

"I haven't offered to sell it to them, but I guess it's implied that if they want it they can have it," he said.

"Early on, it was worth very little money," Conway says. "But because of all the publicity and because anything you have that attracts 200,000 people each month, I would say is probably worth several tens of thousands of pounds."

Maybe $50,000, he says.

Not bad on a $100 investment.

Pub Date: 10/14/97

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