By filling out computerized forms and paying a few hundred dollars, Massoud Chaharbakhsh built an empire of big-city newspapers.
Now, the Rockville man is being pursued by lawyers for a half-dozen media companies who say he is ruining prestigious names by using variations of their trademarks on his World Wide Web sites.
The owners of the Chicago Tribune and Tampa Tribune are suing Chaharbakhsh in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt in a case that Internet experts say is among the first in the country to pit newspaper trademarks against so-called computer domain names.
Lawyers for Times Mirror Corp., owner of The Sun and The Los Angeles Times, have warned Chaharbakhsh about timesmirror.com and losangelestimes.com, names he also has registered with Network Solutions Inc., the Herndon, Va., company that logs domain names.
And Chaharbakhsh has paid the $100 fee to register wjfk.com, for the Washington-area radio station that carries shock jock Howard Stern's morning show and G. Gordon Liddy's talk show.
A domain name works like a telephone number. An Internet user can type a domain name to access an Internet service or Web site. But unlike a telephone number, a domain name can have many variations by using periods or slashes between the words.
The newspapers' suit alleges Chaharbakhsh used their names but put the periods in different places in an attempted to deceive readers of their on-line publications.
For example, Chaharbakhsh registered chicagotribune.com and tampatribune.com. in August, two years after the Tampa Tribune registered the domain name tampa.tribune.com. The Chicago Tribune registered chicago.tribune.com in March 1996.
Experts say registering domain names that are similar to corporate names and holding them for ransom or trying to sell them back amounts to "electronic extortion."
"Absolutely. He's trying to make a business out of other peoples' names," says Katherine McDaniel, director of intellectual property for Times Mirror. "He hasn't asked anyone for money, and that's what we're waiting for."
Chaharbakhsh isn't the only one being watched. Take the case of the Friend to Friend Foundation of Lenexa, Kan., which has registered more than 250 domain names, including baseball players (bradyanderson.com), places (vaticancityitaly.com), celebrities (roseannearquette.com) and politicians (richardgephardt.com).
Friend to Friend does not demand a fee to transfer a domain name to someone, but "if you appreciate our efforts, please send a donation" to the foundation's Christian ministry.
Anderson's marketing attorney says her client is looking at two Web site proposals, neither of which is from the Kansas foundation.
"I just set Brady up with a computer, and he doesn't even know how to turn it on at this point," says Diane Hock. "He wants to learn about the Internet before he makes any decisions."
A spokesman for Gephardt, the Democratic leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, says the congressman has had no contact with Friend to Friend and has a Web address through the federal government.
"An applicant should not be trying to gather a huge backlog of domain names that obviously belong to other people," said McDaniel.
Chaharbakhsh and Friend to Friend did not return telephone calls. Chaharbakhsh's 800 number listed on the Internet has been disconnected, and he does not have an office at the business address he lists.
Chaharbakhsh and Friend to Friend have not developed pages for the domain names they hold.
According to the federal suit, Chaharbakhsh, 40, told the newspapers that he planned to use the Web sites to "serve as vehicles to discuss the content and coverage of the Chicago Tribune and the Tampa Tribune."
When the newspapers learned of Chaharbakhsh's actions, they asked him to give up the names but he refused, the suit says.
Network Solutions has tightened its rules and requires those registering to supply evidence of a legitimate claim to the name. If someone files a challenge to a name, Network Solutions often will put it on hold until the matter is resolved.
Still, the experts say, there is a lot of room for creativity.
"It's a very gray area, because no one has determined how to handle all the permutations," says Mary Ellen Bates, an Internet consultant and business researcher. "It's like homesteading. Whoever gets the land first has the stake."
McDaniel and others blame Network Solutions for not having more control over domain name applications.
"There shouldn't be Times Mirror dot anything," says McDaniel. "Isn't this an obvious abuse? What are you going to use 'Los Angeles Times' on that isn't going to reflect on the source of the goods?"
But David Grimes of Network Solutions says running background checks on the 125,000 applications received each month is impractical.
Applications that are filled out correctly "go unseen into the registry," said Grimes, adding that an approval process like that used by the U.S. Patent Office runs counter to the philosophy of online services.
"People want a prompt response so they can get up and running. The Patent Office takes 16 months, on average," he said. "We register on a first-come, first-served basis in a matter of hours, sometimes in a matter of seconds."
Bates said she believes the newspapers and others "have a legitimate beef" that will have to be settled in court.
"No one has really addressed whether this is a trademark infringement," she said. "I think that over the next several years this will resolve itself, but in the meantime it's the wild, wild West."
Pub Date: 11/07/97