Web site owner links city to smut

Man wants $8,500 to give up porn page with Baltimore name

January 14, 2002|By Gady A. Epstein | Gady A. Epstein,SUN STAFF

Memo to Mayor Martin O'Malley: Someone's taken Baltimore, Maryland, and he's holding it for $8,500 in cash.

What happens if you don't pay up, Mr. Mayor? Well, whenever anyone goes to the Web site www.baltimorema ryland.com, they won't find anything approximating the city, its government or civic life in general. Unless pornography counts as civic life.

That's right, Baltimore truly has joined the Information Age, though not in that "Digital Harbor" way O'Malley's been imagining.

"I'm disgusted, repulsed and annoyed," O'Malley said after learning about the pornography site last week. "It's like somebody's stealing a corporate name."

A cyberspeculator has bought the rights to baltimoremaryland.com and a host of other dot-com city names, and linked all these seemingly geographic domain names to a pornographic Web site.

Other cities that have now unwittingly become Internet gateways to pornography include Detroit, San Diego, Seattle and Nashville, Tenn. - each listed for $8,500 by the same man, Stephen Gregory, a one-time Oregon resident who might be operating out of the Philippines. He also has the rights to marylandtravel.com (available for $2,200).

Gregory did not respond to requests for comment, but his Web site lists hundreds of domain names for sale, at prices ranging from $2,200 to $350,000. Up for sale are prison.com and fitnessguide.com, each listed for $20,000; hanukkah.com and liable.com, listed for $85,000; electionday.com and highdefinitiontv.com, for $200,000; and beijingchina.com and stockbrokerage.com, each available for $350,000.

In an Internet culture that has produced illegal cybersquatters and shadowy cyberpoachers - including the opportunist who seized the expired domain name of the Ballet Theatre of Maryland last year - Gregory's domain name exploits appear to be limited to the legal pursuit of common words and geographic place names that could be of value.

It's a modern variation on the speculative free-for-all one might have found on the American frontier: Claim as many tracts of land as you could and hold on to them until the land's worth something someday.

Some cyberspeculators have made nice profits buying up generic domain names that companies found later on they'd really like to have. Names like computer.com, business.com and university.com are just a few that have reportedly sold for substantial sums of at least six figures.

But what happens when a city's name becomes a site for pornographic links? Does the city have a legal right to its Internet name? The answer may be surprising.

"It's just first come, first serve," said E. Dale Robertson, a domain name litigator who is representing the owners of barcelona.com in a federal lawsuit filed in Virginia's Eastern District against the City Council of Barcelona, Spain.

Robertson said that aside from the Barcelona case, in which an initial ruling favored the Barcelona government, every other city - 11 so far - has failed when trying to wrest away its name from a private individual or company.

The reason, experts say, is that geographic place names, in general, can't be trademarked by any one person, so geographic Internet domain names are up for grabs. That's why baltimore.com, for example, belongs to an Irish company, Baltimore Technologies, that purchased the name from a local online services entrepreneur in 1999 for what was reportedly a six-figure sum.

"The city of Baltimore does not have a trademark for the word Baltimore," Robertson said. The city doesn't appear to have a legal recourse, he said, "no matter how reprehensible or offensive the [current] use of the name is."

Short of going to court, some say, it's possible that Baltimore would find a sympathetic ear with an international arbiter of Internet name disputes, such the World Intellectual Property Organization. That group, and another charged with overseeing domain names, are not so keen about such cyberspeculators."[They] frown upon the idea of squatting on names for selling purposes, and that's clearly what's going on here," said Thomas C. D'Alleva, vice president of marketing for Bulkregister, a Baltimore-based company that registers domain names. "People should be looking at what [the name is] used for."

That, says David J. Loundy, an Internet law professor who has represented Gregory, leads to another unwritten rule in this evolving area of cyberlaw.

"The pornographer always loses," says Loundy, associate director of the John Marshall Law School's Center for Information Technology and Privacy Law in Chicago. Loundy has successfully defended Gregory against legal challenges, arguing that Gregory intentionally avoids trademark infringement, by picking untrademarked words and phrases and geographic names.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.