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Law firms chase activist squatter off two Internet sites

The Coloradan who had the names says he has registered 6,000 for free speech's sake.

By SCOTT BARANCIK, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 20, 2002


Two law firms have won their battles against a quirky activist who controls Web sites bearing their names.

Starting next week, the dancing kangaroos and rambling political critiques currently featured on AkermanSenterfitt.com and FoleyandLardner.com will make way for stodgier fare: lists of clients, lawyer names and legal specialties. Florida-based Akerman Senterfitt and Foley & Lardner, a Milwaukee firm that also has a substantial Florida presence, recently won separate arbitration cases against Colorado computer programmer Brian Wick.

Unlike many so-called cybersquatters, Wick is not out to extort money from deep-pocketed businesses. He described his use of corporate Web sites a form of free speech, equating it to standing outside a storefront with a protest sign.

But both law firms argued they are entitled to the Internet addresses, even though Wick got there first. An arbitrator reporting to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, an agency that authorizes Web addresses, agreed.

The lawyers argued that in addition to violating trademark rights the Web sites could confuse clients and damage the firms' reputation.

Steven Greenberg, an associate in Akerman's West Palm Beach office, called Wick's approach the legal equivalent to building an exact replica of a McDonald's restaurant, luring in customers, and serving them political posters rather than hamburgers. "You can't steal somebody's domain name and trick people into coming to it so you can express your views," he said.

Barring an appeal of the arbitrators' rulings in court, both law firms will obtain control of the Web sites late next week. Wick, who represented himself in the cases and had already lost at least a dozen others, called the arbitration process "basically kind of a slam-dunk for the trademark holder." But he said he doesn't have the funds to challenge the rulings.

He said he eagerly awaits his first jury trial next year, a case brought by Pinehurst Resorts, a North Carolina golf resort that seeks damages against him.

Wick said he has registered more than 6,000 Web sites. Some, including CompaqComputer.com and WinnDixieStores.com, mimic trademarked names of companies. Others, such as HolocaustMuseum.com and Anti-American.com, serve as palettes for his tirades about the legal system, which he said has been corrupted by corporate money. But the bulk are generic names he would like to sell along with his own software, such as WholesaleUsedCars.com and BoozeClub.com.

The 1999 Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act made it illegal to register in bad faith a domain name that is "identical or confusingly similar" to a famous trademark owned by another person or company.

Still, arbitration isn't always the solution of choice. Recently, the St. Petersburg Times bought the domain name StPeteTimesForum.com and several similar ones from Kenneth Robinson. Marketing director Ed. Cassidy said it was cheaper and faster to pay Robinson "substantially less" than five figures than to litigate. The Web sites were purchased this month, about the time the newspaper unveiled a $30-million deal to rename the Ice Palace in Tampa the St. Pete Times Forum.

Akerman Senterfitt and Foley & Lardner may not be done with Wick just yet. Both were disturbed to learn Thursday that the Web site HolocaustMuseum.com likens them and other law firms he has targeted to Nazis.

Said Akerman's Greenberg, "We'll have to look into that."

-- Information from Times files was used in this report. Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

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