gTLDs are Already Causing Confusion – Just Ask Wayne Knight and TMZ

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UPDATED July 15, 2015

Actor Wayne Knight (best known as Newman on Seinfeld) was forced to tweet his “proof of life” on Twitter, after a website that uses the domain name TMZ.today reported that he was killed in a traffic accident and the story went viral.  It has been reported that many users credited the story of the death of Wayne Knight because it was circulated with attribution to the website TMZ.today.  TMZ is well known as a major source of real entertainment news and celebrity gossip.  TMZ uses the domain name TMZ.com, but the domain name TMZ.today links to an entirely different website called ebuzzd.com that is actually an unrelated, deliberately fake news website – a website dedicated to hoaxes.

Wayne Knight’s concerns aside, this story presents important lessons for trademark holders and domain name registrants:  New generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs) are here and must be reckoned with.  TMZ.com is not TMZ.today, but it’s a good bet that a substantial portion of the consuming public does not know that.  Will the consuming public realize that your company website “XYZ.com” is not affiliated with XYZ.Today, XYZ.News, XYZ.Info, XYZ.Web, XYZ.Blog, XYZ.Corp, XYZ.Inc, XYZ.London, XYZ.Charity or XYZ.Porn, or any of the 600+ other non-branded gTLDs that are available now and coming online within the next two years?

For a trademark holder, it can be a daunting prospect to try to police that many possible confusing domain names, but there are cost-effective brand protection strategies and solutions.  They begin with recognizing the issue, and making sure that you have taken all appropriate steps to protect your trademarks and domain names.  The most basic step is to obtain U.S. trademark registrations for your important trademarks – especially for your primary brand.  That is the key to many of the solutions that are offered at http://trademark-clearinghouse.com/, the administrative service established by ICANN to help control issuance of gTLDs.   Then, set a strategy that includes monitoring the “Sunrise Periods,” during which registered trademark holders can take the most efficient steps to protect against spurious registrations of confusingly similar domain names with the new gTLDs.

The best and most cost-effective methods of protection against gTLD infringers and domain name cybersquatters will be discussed in future blog posts.  Available methods include preemptive registration, blocking and various forms of policing.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel routinely guides its clients to protect their valuable intellectual property and domain names, including taking proactive steps to address the new threats to trademarks posed by gTLDs.  Contact us if you have questions and need assistance.


 

UPDATE July 15, 2015:  Another example of misuse of gTLD domain extensions happened again and demonstrates that real money can change hands when gTLD domain name extensions are abused.  Twitter stock jumped on July 14, 2015 after what appeared to be the Bloomberg Business website posted a news article reporting that Twitter had received a $31 billion buyout offer.  The story was fake, but it passed for real news by being posted on a website designed as a counterfeit of the Bloomberg Business website and using a new gTLD:  www.bloomberg.market.  The real Bloomberg website is actually found at www.bloomberg.com.  To help make a convincing appearance, the www.bloomberg.market website included links back to the real www.bloomberg.com website.  Enough readers were fooled that Twitter stock price spiked after news of the purported buyout offer was picked up in legitimate media.  gTLD confusion may continue to be a problem for trademark holders until they take affirmative steps to limit the possibilities of confusion and abuse.

 

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Protecting Your Company When a Top Executive Leaves to Join a Competitor

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What do you do when a key member of your team goes to work for a rival firm? Or, perhaps worse, how do you react when you receive a competitor’s demand that your latest hire, a new sales manager, stop working for you?

John Conkle recently participated in a discussion of experienced practitioners which looked at these and related topics at the 2014 American Bar Association (ABA) Section of Litigation, Corporate Counsel Committee’s Continuing Legal Education Seminar held in Rancho Mirage, California. The topic of the presentation was what actions inside and outside counsel need to take when a top executive of the company leaves to joins a competitor, when the company’s reputation, confidential information, and business could all be at risk. The panel addressed practical and legal strategies to help navigate the pitfalls presented by this high-stakes dilemma.

Protecting Your Company - ABA 2014

John was joined on the panel by the Hon. Gail Andler, Judge of the Orange County California Superior Court; Elizabeth K. Deardorff, Associate General Counsel of Hewlett-Packard Company; and Steven A. Weiss, of Schopf & Weiss LLP, a Chicago litigation boutique firm. More than 300 attorneys from law firms and law departments throughout the United States and from several foreign countries attended this year’s seminar.

Written materials distributed at the seminar included an article written by John and Bill Garcia, Director of Legal Project Management at Thompson Hine LLP:    First Response to Surprise Departure of Top Executive to Marketplace Rival.  The article outlines first response actions to be taken by counsel in response to an executive’s departure. Bill Garcia had been scheduled to moderate the panel, which he helped conceive and orchestrate, but he was unfortunately snowed in and unable to leave Washington, D.C.

Losing a key executive to a competitor can be a serious and sensitive matter. CK&E is well versed in the options available to a company whose top executive leaves. CK&E has also represented the interests of the company acquiring the executive and employs various strategies and defenses to help resolve disputes over such hirings. CK&E lawyers have represented both sides of these issues, from recruitment of an entire sales team to competition by a former owner of an acquired business or product line.  CK&E’s vast experience in the area of employment law, non-competition and protection of trade secrets allows the firm to efficiently assist in-house counsel to reach a desired objective with a minimum of business disruption.

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Keeping "Competition" in California’s Unfair Competition Law

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California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL) provides broad protections to both consumers and businesses, prohibiting any form of conduct that can be found to be an “unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business act or practice.”  (California Business & Professions Code § 17200)  The UCL is particularly powerful because it can reach conduct that is not specifically illegal under any other law, and can also provide a remedy for any acts or omissions that are prohibited under other state or federal laws even if those laws do not allow private citizens to sue when they are violated.  A recent example is the case of Law Offices of Mathew Higbee v. Expungement Assistance Services, in which a lawyer used the UCL to sue a credit repair service that was not licensed to practice law. The lawyer alleged that he too was in the credit repair business and, as a result of the defendant’s violations of California’s attorney licensing requirements,  the competing lawyer was required to lower his prices and spend more money on advertising, lost clients and revenue, and the value of his law firm had diminished. Ordinarily, the statutes requiring a license to practice law cannot be enforced by private citizens. But here, the UCL was held to “borrow” the statutory violation to show an “unlawful business act or practice” that gave the plaintiff a claim.

Those already familiar with UCL know that it was modified by Proposition 64 in 2004, tightening the standing requirements so that an action could only be brought by a “person who has suffered injury in fact and has lost money or property” as a result of the alleged unfair competition. (B&PC section 17204)  Some courts had struggled with this new requirement, at times suggesting that the plaintiff would have to show that the defendant had directly taken money from the plaintiff as a result of the unfair competition.  Such a requirement would effectively eliminate “competition” out of the Unfair Competition Law:  It is rare that a business competitor could show that it gave money or property directly to a competitor as a result of unfair competition – and if it did happen, the plaintiff would probably have a breach of contract or fraud claim and probably would not need to use the UCL.

But over time it has become clear that Prop 64 did not not eliminate unfair competition claims between competitors.  In the Law Offices of Mathew Higbee case, the Court of Appeal in Orange County held that the UCL does not require that the parties have had direct dealings with each other in order to succeed “in alleging at least an identifiable trifle of injury as necessary for standing under UCL.”  The Court surveyed the law before and after Prop 64, and found the cases supportive of a rule that permitted business competitors to make unfair competition claims.  The standing requirement does not require in every instance that the parties have had direct dealings with each other. The Court emphasized that, provided that the “identifiable trifle of injury” resulting from the acts of unfair competition can be shown, “the UCL does not leave the court hamstrung, unable to even consider an action seeking injunctive relief just because the defendant engages in its purportedly unlawful activity via the Internet and has not had any direct business dealings with the plaintiff.”

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