Bruce Springsteen has lost his domain name dispute after a WIPO panel ruled 2-1 in favour of notorious domain hoarder Jeff Burgar.
The ruling, on an apparently clear case of domain squatting, gives more ammunition to WIPO's critics. One panelist complained of factual errors and said that official guidelines had not been followed. Other panelists suggested that earlier judgements were unsafe.
Springsteen's complaint, filed last November, accused Jeff Burgar of registering BruceSpringsteen.com in bad faith and using it along with hundreds of other celebrity names to draw traffic to his Celebrity 1000 portal site.
Burgar, who has previously faced court action over similar allegations, was clearly prepared to defend his corner. The WIPO panel noted that he "produced a substantial response, far in excess of the guideline size".
After the complaint was filed, Burgar pointed the disputed domain to a site with a message board and Springsteen biography, and claimed to be running a fan club. He had registered the domain in 1996 under the name "Bruce Springsteen Club".
He told the WIPO panel that there was no evidence of Springsteen's name having protection under common law, and that his site did not harm the singer's reputation.
He also denied making a profit from the site.
BruceSpringsteen.com could not be mistakenly seen as official, Burgar argued, asserting that the use of a celebrity name as an Internet address is similar to the name being printed on the front page of a magazine.
He said that someone looking for an official Springsteen site was unlikely to try BruceSpringsteen.com, and anyone who did so would know that it was unofficial.
Two members of the review panel agreed with practically every aspect of Burgar's defence. They concluded that he has "some rights or legitimate interests in respect of the domain name", and ruled that he could keep it.
The third panelist disagreed on an almost point-by-point basis. The majority panelists, he said, "should have concluded" that Springsteen's name was protected under common law as an unregistered trademark.
They had acknowledged that Springsteen was a "famous, almost legendary" performer, and had pointed out that a Web search on his name turned up thousands of hits. Based on this, the third panelist said, "secondary meaning has been adequately shown".
He also said that an Internet user was "more likely than not" to expect that the domain BruceSpringsteen.com was an official site. "Therefore, the resolution of the domain name into www.celebrity1000.com is misleading."
He said that Springsteen had "made the necessary showing" to demonstrate bad faith, and Burgar had "not presented sufficient evidence" to show that he had a legitimate interest in the disputed domain.
As for Burgar not profiting from the site, the third panelist dismissed this as irrelevant: "The test of a commercial undertaking is not that the enterprise turns a profit." He concluded that the site was commercial and the domain should be transferred.
Burgar is no stranger to allegations of cyber-squatting. It is believed that he owns over 1,500 domains, many related to sports and entertainment. He has been the subject of legal action from Hewlett Packard, Mariah Carey, the search engine company Northern Light, and CAPS, an organisation which represents major sporting leagues in the US and Canada.
Aside from its own controversies, the Springsteen case raises questions about WIPO's previous handling of celebrity name disputes, as two of the panelists suggested that "many of those decisions are flawed in some way or another".
Specifically mentioned are the cases of author Jeanette Winterson, actress Julia Roberts and Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. All three cases resulted in domain transfer orders.
The panelists also offered this philosophical nugget, which should perhaps serve as a warning to any celebrities looking to reclaim their names in future:
"The internet is an instrument for purveying information, comment, and opinion on a wide range of issues and topics. It is a valuable source of information in many fields, and any attempt to curtail its use should be strongly discouraged. Users fully expect domain names incorporating the names of well known figures in any walk of life to exist independently of any connection with the figure themselves, but having been placed there by admirers or critics as the case may be." ®
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