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Ron Paul’s Eminent Domain: UDRP filed against fans

Former presidential candidate, retired Texas congressman, and recognizable Libertarian Ron Paul has initiated formal action to overtake possession of the domain names www.ronpaul.com and www.ronpaul.org. These are presently home to self-dubbed Ron Paul fan sites. Also notable is the fact that Mr. Paul has ties to the Commonwealth of Kentucky, as his son is the state’s junior U.S. senator.

Domain dispute procedures

Rep. Paul filed a complaint with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a United Nations agency, requesting the transfer of the domain names from his fans to him. Specifically, Ron Paul filed his complaint through WIPO’s Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP), which provides an alternative dispute resolution procedure specifically aimed at resolving conflicts over domain names. The UDRP procedure is generally significantly less time-consuming and much less costly than filing a lawsuit in federal court. However, the only remedies available for the complainant are injunctive – namely, the cancellation of the domain name or transfer of the domain name to the complainant. In other words, Mr. Paul will receive no money for his troubles in the event he succeeds.

To succeed under the UDRP procedure, Mr. Paul must demonstrate that:

  1. the domain names are identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark in which he has rights;
  2. the domains’ owners have no rights or legitimate interests in respect of the domains; and
  3. the domain has been registered and is being used in bad faith.

Mr. Paul’s claims

While complainants typically enjoy overwhelming success with the UDRP, Rep. Paul’s claims are not so clear-cut. Mr. Paul does not own a federal trademark registration for his name, but he argues that RON PAUL is a United States trademark based on “common law” trademark rights. Thus, the two domain names at issue are identical to that common law trademark, satisfying the first prong of the UDRP procedure.

Next, Mr. Paul contends that the domain registrants have no rights or legitimate interests in the domains, thereby satisfying prong two. However, WIPO panelists have indicated that if a fan site is active, noncommercial and distinctive from any official site, then the registrant may have rights and legitimate interests in the domain. These facts will be debated by the parties, and ultimately decided by the WIPO panel.

Lastly, Rep. Paul maintains that the domains’ owners registered and are using the domain names in bad faith because they allegedly offered to sell the online property to him and are competing with him by selling “Ron Paul” merchandise through the associated website, among other factors. Again, this is a factual determination to be fleshed out by the panel.

Avoid domain disputes by protecting first

While Mr. Paul’s efforts may ultimately prove successful, it should be noted that this situation was avoidable. To register a domain name, you must simply be the first to apply with one of the many domain registrars. Had Rep. Paul, or his handlers, considered the need for an online presence before his first presidential run, they could have purchased the domain before it was already taken. Buying a domain is typically an inexpensive proposition, and, as this case shows, doing so can save time and money down the road by avoiding the need to recover an online property once it is already claimed. Domain names are akin to online real estate. As with other real property, whoever’s name is on the title holds the cards. If the title holder is unwilling to relinquish possession, the next steps become difficult. 

By not winning the race to the domain registry, Mr. Paul, a popular Libertarian and critic of global governing bodies, now finds himself in the awkward position of relying on a United Nations body to take another party’s possession. Also uncomfortable, albeit less ironic, is the fact that he is now waging a legal battle against his own fans. Businesses and individuals alike should take note of the lessons here. If you are considering an online presence but do not already have one, now is the time to purchase your domain name. There are much more sinister folks out there (than a group of fans) waiting to snatch up unclaimed yet valuable Internet property. To the extent they can trade off of your success and goodwill, they will inevitably try.

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