When Squatters Attack

What are your options against international domain thugs?

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Richard MacManus, founder and editor of the blog ReadWriteWeb, had a disturbing correspondence with a (seemingly) Russian "brand squatter," a person MacManus describes as one trying to piggyback on his blog brand name for financial game.

When Squatters Attack

The squatter, who identified himself in the email as Vladislav Sobolev, announced to MacManus his intention to register ReadWriteWeb.mobi and ReadWriteWeb.ru, (and MacManus.mobi presumably just to rub it in some), and a host of .mobi or .ru versions of other brand names which include some names we know: buzzmachine, craphound, crunchboard, deadspin, micropersuasion, scobleizer, sethgodin.

And "a couple dozen other projects."

In follow-up emails, as posted by MacManus at ReadWriteWeb, Sobolev expressed his intention to write original content, slap some AdSense on the sites, and piggyback on the traffic generated by the ReadWriteWeb brand name.

MacManus, of course, told him he’d better not. Sobolev responded with a rather blunt (and here, paraphrased) what-are-you-going-to-do-about it? Sobolev was more than keen on reminding MacManus he hadn’t registered a trademark on the blog name he’d been using for nearly five years.

Obviously a dirty move, and perhaps even more of an attempt to extort money from MacManus via an offer to sell the domain to him.

There are a number of questions:

Is this guy who he says he is?
Does he really live in Russia?
Is there a chance of email malware? – that’s a scary one
What are my rights?
What are my options?
What are the chances he’ll do anything if I don’t respond?

All legitimate questions, none with particularly easy answers. The general understanding is that in the US and many Western countries, use of a brand in commerce for a length of time is sufficient for a trademark claim. But that may not count in Russia.

Many commentators, whom MacManus opened up the floor to for advice, thought there was little to be done if pressing the case in the Russian legal system. The costs of international legal action aside, many felt there would be little use of bringing the case before Russian authorities.  

So what are the options in this situation when legal pursuit in another, seemingly apathetic country is either unviable or cost-prohibitive? Commentators suggested many routes of action, besides officially registering the trademark as soon as possible and buying up every variation of a domain name in every country one can think of (one approach is time consuming and the other is costly):

Ignore it and wait to see if the extortionist does anything. He may be bluffing in order to squeeze some money of out you, especially since scraper sites and rip-off made-for-AdSense sites rarely do well. After all, unless you’re a large business, you can’t register every single domain. You could ask Google to be more vigilant in which sites get the AdSense stamp of approval, but that would affect Google’s bottom line, now wouldn’t it?

If legal options are cost-prohibitive and/or unlikely to work, there are other routes that could be taken. One of them is filing a Uniform Domain-Name Dispute Resolution complaint with ICANN and hope they strip the brand-squatter (this is what MacManus called him) from using the domain.

Another interesting option presented was that if and when the website goes up, report it to Google’s webspam team (as well as similar teams from other major search engines), which loves to de-list sites like this from the index, thus destroying a large chunk of the traffic the squatter is looking to capitalize on. File a complaint with the AdSense team, too. If there’s no money to be made, the squatter will likely abandon the site.  

When Squatters Attack
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