WIPO

 

WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center

 

ADMINISTRATIVE PANEL DECISION

Domain Name Systems, Inc. v. TBS Industries

Case No. D2001-0871

 

1. The Parties

The Complainant is Domain Name Systems, Inc., a corporation organized in the United States of America (USA), with place of business in Englewood, Florida, USA.

The Respondent is TBS Industries, with address in Newport Beach, California, USA.

 

2. The Domain Name and Registrar

The disputed domain name is <dotsex.com>.

The registrar of the disputed domain name is Network Solutions, Inc., with business address in Herndon, Virginia, USA.

 

3. Procedural History

The essential procedural history of the administrative proceeding is as follows:

(a) The Complainant initiated the proceeding by the filing of a Complaint via e-mail, received by the WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center ("WIPO") on July 10, 2001, and by courier mail received by WIPO on July 18, 2001. Payment by Complainant of the requisite filing fees accompanied the courier mailing. On July 13, 2000, WIPO transmitted a Request for Registrar Verification to the registrar, Network Solutions, Inc. (with the Registrarís Response received by WIPO on July 16, 2001).

(b) On July 19, 2001, WIPO transmitted notification of the Complaint and commencement of the proceeding to Respondent via e-mail and courier mail. Air courier tracking records indicate that the Complaint was delivered on July 23, 2001, to the address of Respondent specified in its registration record. The notification indicated that the final date for transmission of a Response to WIPO and Complainant was August 8, 2001.

(c) By e-mail dated August 10, 2001, Respondentís counsel advised WIPO that Respondent had discovered the existence of this proceeding on WIPOís website, that Respondent had not received notice of the proceeding or the Complaint, and requested that an extension be granted for the late filing of a Response. On August 13, 2001, Respondent transmitted to WIPO a formal petition for the late filing of a Response, claiming failure to receive the initial notification.

(d) By telefax to WIPO dated August 13, 2001, Complainant filed a document opposing extension of the period for filing a Response, on grounds of evidence that Respondent had in fact received the initial notification of the Complaint, and that Respondent had improperly modified its registration record, including contact information, subsequent to initiation of this proceeding.

(e) On August 13, 2001, WIPO notified Respondent by e-mail that, although WIPO records indicated that the relevant documents had been properly transmitted to the contact addresses contained in Respondentís record of registration, it would nonetheless grant an extension until August 18, 2001, for the filing of a Response. WIPO indicated, however, that the panel appointed to decide the proceeding would make the ultimate determination regarding whether the Response would be admitted.

(f) On August 18, 2001, Respondentís Response was received via e-mail by WIPO. Respondent also transmitted its Response to Complainant. Respondent elected to have this proceeding decided by a three-member panel.

(g) In e-mail correspondence with WIPO between August 21 and August 27, 2001, Complainant queried whether it was entitled to file a reply to the Response submitted by Respondent, and objected to Respondentís request for a three-member panel on grounds that Respondent had not replied to the Complaint within the time limits established by the Policy. WIPO advised Complainant that the Panel would have discretion whether to accept additional submissions, and proceeded with the appointment of a three-member panel.

(h) By telefax dated August 28/29, 2001, Complainant transmitted to WIPO its "Complainantís Response to late-filed Respondants [sic] Response".

(i) On September 27, 2001, Complainant and Respondent were notified by WIPO of the appointment of Prof. Frederick M. Abbott (Presiding), Prof. Milton L. Mueller and Prof. Jeffrey Samuels as the Administrative Panel (the "Panel") in this matter. Each panelist had previously transmitted to WIPO an executed Statement of Acceptance and Declaration of Impartiality and Independence ("Statement and Declaration"). WIPO notified the Panel that, absent exceptional circumstances, it would be required to forward its decision to WIPO by October 16, 2001. On September 27, 2001, WIPO transmitted an electronic file containing relevant documents to each Panel member. Each Panel member subsequently received a hard copy of the file in this matter by courier from WIPO.

The Panel has not received any requests from Complainant or Respondent regarding further submissions, waivers or extensions of deadlines, and the Panel has not found it necessary to request any further information from the parties. The proceedings have been conducted in English.

 

4. Factual Background

Complainant has filed an application for registration of the stylized word service mark ".SEX" at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), serial no. 76223416, dated March 12, 2001, in International Class 38, covering "domain name registry". By letter of July 9, 2001, the USPTO notified Complainant of its initial refusal to register the mark. The examining attorney stated, inter alia, that a top level domain name "is merely a portion of a websiteís address, not a source indicator of any particular goods or services", citing In re William H. Eilberg, 49 USPQ 2d (BNA) 1955 (1998), which, according to the examining attorney, held "that the mark <eilberg.com> merely indicates an internet address, and is incapable of functioning as a source indicator." The examiner also indicated that identification of the service as "domain name registry" was too indefinite, and that a common commercial name or more complete description should be used. Also, the specified services would be more properly classified in International Class 42. The examining attorney indicated that the drawing of the stylized mark as submitted was not in the proper form. The examining attorney indicated that Complainant could respond to the refusal by submitting evidence and arguments in support of registration.

Complainant did not submit to the Panel evidence of use in commerce of the asserted mark ".SEX". Complainant states that "Domain Name Systems, Inc. [is] well known throughout the world". It also states "The registrant registered the domain name on May 10, 2001, several months after it became common knowledge that Domain Name Systems, Inc. had embarked in this business. Domain Name Systems, Inc., has been in business for over a year, and currently services clients around the world".

Although Complainant did not submit printouts of it website pages, the Panel has determined that Complainantís active <domainnamesystems.com> website offers Internet users "alternate registry" services for ".xxx and .sex", at URL <sexregistry.org> (Panel visit of October 10, 2001). The alternate registry home page uses the term ".sex" to refer to its alternate registration services stating, inter alia "[t]hereís a whole new world out there, that consists of sites that donít use the current root server system". It also states ".sex and .xxx are trademarks of Domain Name Systems". (Id.)

According to the registrarís verification response to WIPO, dated July 16, 2001, TBS Industries is the listed registrant of the domain name <dotsex.com>. The Administrative Contact, at the same address, is "TBS Industries Ltd.". According to an OpenSRS WHOIS database printout submitted by Complainant, the record of registration for the disputed domain name was created on May 10, 2001, and was last updated on May 21, 2001 (Complaint, Annex 2).

Respondent asserts that it purchased the disputed domain name from a third party in May 2001 (Response, Exhibit 4, Affidavit of Thomas Goolnik, president of TBS Industries Ltd., dated August 17, 2001).

Respondent maintains an active commercial website at Internet address (URL) <dotsex.com>. At this website, Respondent offers to register domain names using a ".sex" top level domain (TLD) designation.

In its Response in this proceeding, Respondent indicates that ".sex.com" is an "alternative" TLD registry, and that "[a]lternative TLDs are recognized by computers for which users have downloaded and activated special Internet browsers". Respondent further asserts that "[t]he .SEX TLD will be active in 2002". (Id., Affidavit of Goolnik)

In their respective pleadings, Complainant and Respondent make various allegations of improper conduct regarding the other. Because of the grounds upon which this proceeding is decided, the Panel will not recite or endeavor to sort through these allegations.

The Service Agreement in effect between Respondent and Network Solutions Inc. subjects Respondent to Network Solutionsí dispute settlement policy, the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy, as adopted by ICANN on August 26, 1999, and with implementing documents approved by ICANN on October 24, 1999. The Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (the "Policy") requires that domain name registrants submit to a mandatory administrative proceeding conducted by an approved dispute resolution service provider, of which WIPO is one, regarding allegations of abusive domain name registration (Policy, para. 4(a)).

 

5. Partiesí Contentions

A. Complainant

Complainant first asserted that it had registered the trademark ".sex" with the USPTO. Complainant subsequently acknowledged that the USPTO had initially refused registration, but asserts that it intends to respond to the "non-final" action. It states that "[i]t is the intention of the Complainant to secure its rights in its intellectual property of Ď.sexí".

Complainant claims that although the disputed domain name <dotsex.com> is not identical to its trademark ".SEX", that it is confusingly similar because the <dotsex.com> web site is used to market domain name registrations under an alternate ".sex" top-level domain. It further asserts that its mark is used by Respondent throughout its website as a substitute for the disputed domain name.

Complainant asserts that Respondent has used the disputed domain name in bad faith by intentionally attempting to attract Internet users to its website by using Complainantís confusingly similar mark in its domain name. Complainant also asserts that Respondent has prevented it from registering its mark in a domain name, and that Respondent is diluting the value of its mark by "selling registrations of domain names which have a Ď.sexí extention [sic]."

Complainant states that it attempted to contact Respondent prior to the filing of its Complaint in this matter, but that its e-mail messages were either returned or went unanswered.

Complainant asserts that Respondent has intentionally misrepresented its business activities to the Panel, that Respondent has made claims in this proceeding that it acts as register of an alternative TLD that is maintained by another enterprise (i.e., ".GOD), and that Respondent claims on its website to be the exclusive registry for ".sex" domain names when it has no such exclusive right.

Complainant requests the Panel to transfer the disputed domain name to it.

B. Respondent

Respondent claimed, in response to Complainantís initial assertion of USPTO registration of the service mark ".SEX", that in fact Complainantís application had been refused. Respondent noted the grounds for refusal, including that a TLD does not serve as an indication of source, and does not function as a trademark.

Respondent asserts that "sex" is a common word, and provides an U.S. Trademark Electronic Search (TESS) printout showing that there are 365 active trademark applications and registrations incorporating the word "sex". Respondent indicates and provides a home page printout showing that there is a third party also providing ".sex" registry services at URL <dotsexx.com>.

Respondent states that Complainantís alleged mark is generic "because it is used to sell .SEX domain names". Respondent indicates that even if ".SEX" is theoretically capable of protection as a mark, that Complainantís application for registration is for a stylized mark, and beyond that is completely different than the disputed domain name <dotsex.com>.

Respondent claims that it has a legitimate interest in the disputed domain name because it was registered to identify its "<dotsex.com> registry". It therefore is alleged to be used in connection with a bona fide offering of services. Moreover, Respondent asserts that since the disputed domain name consists of two generic terms, it has a legitimate interest "regardless of how it is using it". Respondent says that it is currently selling ".sex" domain names, and the fact that they will not be activated until 2002 does not diminish its assertion of an active use of and interest in the disputed domain name.

Respondent denies bad faith registration and use of the disputed domain name. It indicates that there is no evidence that it intended or has offered to sell the name to Complainant, prevented Complainant from registering its trademark, disrupted Complainantís business, or confused consumers. It states that it registered a common term for use in connection with its registry services.

Respondent asserts that it began selling ".sex" domain names in 1996, (so that it could not have intended bad faith conduct regarding Complainantís alleged markbut offered no evidence for this claim). Moreover, since Complainant has no rights in the ".SEX" mark, Respondent could not have acted in bad faith regarding it. Likewise, since the alleged mark is a generic term, Respondent could not have acted in bad faith. Respondent also indicates that Complainant cannot register the "dot" character in a domain name, and thus Respondent has not prevented registration of the asserted mark. Moreover, there is no evidence of a pattern of registering the marks of others to prevent their registration as domain names.

Respondent requests the Panel to make a finding of reverse domain name hijacking against Complainant. Respondent asserts that Complainant had an obligation to disclose the material fact of the USPTOís refusal of its service mark application, and that Complainant should have known it could not assert rights in a generic term. Respondent asserts that there is no evidence to support other elements necessary for a finding against it, and that the Panel should condemn Complainantís conduct.

 

6. Discussion and Findings

The Policy is addressed to resolving disputes concerning allegations of abusive domain name registration and use. The Panel will confine itself to making determinations necessary to resolve this administrative proceeding.

It is essential to dispute resolution proceedings that fundamental due process requirements be met. Such requirements include that a Respondent have notice of proceedings that may substantially affect its rights. The Policy, and the Rules for Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (the "Rules"), establish procedures intended to assure that Respondents are given adequate notice of proceedings commenced against them, and a reasonable opportunity to respond (see, e.g., paragraph 2(a), Rules).

In this case, the Panel is satisfied that WIPO took all steps reasonably necessary to notify the Respondent of the filing of the Complaint and initiation of these proceedings.

Respondent did not respond to the Complaint prior to the deadline established by the Rules, but two days after the filing deadline requested an extension for filing a Response. Respondent asserted that it had not received notice of the initiation of the proceedings and Complaint, and only discovered the proceedings by viewing the WIPO website.

There is substantial evidence in the record that notice of the initiation of the proceedings and the Complaint were transmitted to and received at the contact addresses indicated by Respondent in its record of registration for the disputed domain name. Nonetheless, whether or not Respondentís assertion of lack of notice is credible, the objective of the Policy and Rules is to afford each party an adequate opportunity to present its evidence and arguments to the Panel established to decide the proceeding. There is no reason to believe that in the circumstances of this proceeding a brief delay in the submission of a Response prejudiced an interest of Complainant. Moreover, Complainant asserted in its initial filing that it had registered a service mark with the USPTO. The fact that this assertion was untrue was brought to the Panelís attention in Respondentís Response. There would be material prejudice to the Panelís determination in this case if it did not accept Respondentís Response. There being no appreciable harm to Complainant from the brief delay caused by the late filing of the Response, and there being potentially substantial prejudice to Respondent based upon Complainantís misrepresentation in the Complaint, the balance of considerations clearly favors the Panelís acceptance of the late-filed Response. The late-filed Response is accepted.

Complainant submitted a reply to Respondentís Response. This reply addresses facts asserted by Respondent that may not reasonably have been anticipated or discovered by Complainant in its preparation of its initial Complaint. For this reason, the Panel also accepts Complainantís reply.

Paragraph 4(a) of the Policy sets forth three elements that must be established by a Complainant to merit a finding that a Respondent has engaged in abusive domain name registration and use, and to obtain relief. These elements are that:

(i) Respondentís domain name is identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark in which the Complainant has rights; and

(ii) Respondent has no rights or legitimate interests in respect of the domain name; and

(iii) Respondentís domain name has been registered and is being used in bad faith.

Each of the aforesaid three elements must be proved by a Complainant to warrant relief.

Complainant asserts rights in the service mark ".SEX". Complainant has failed to establish such rights.

First, the mark is not registered at the USPTO. As a consequence, there is no presumption of rights in the mark under federal law [1].

Second, the USPTO has initially refused to register the mark. The examining attorney stated, among the reasons for refusal, that a top level domain (TLD) designation does not identify a particular source of services, and therefore is incapable of functioning as a mark. In support of this proposition, the examining attorney cited In re William H Eilberg, 49 USPQ 2d (BNA) 1955 (1998). The USPTO Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) determined in In re Eilberg that the URL <eilberg.com> did not in the circumstances of that case serve as a service mark. The URL was used by an attorney offering his services as an indicator of an address on the Internet, and evidence of use as an identifier in commerce consisted of office stationary on which the URL appeared as part of the business address. The TTAB concluded:

"Upon careful review of this record and the arguments of the attorneys, we agree with the Examining Attorney that the asserted mark, as displayed on applicant's letterhead, does not function as a service mark identifying and distinguishing applicant's legal services and, as presented, is not capable of doing so. As shown, the asserted mark identifies applicant's Internet domain name, by use of which one can access applicant's Web site. In other words, the asserted mark <eilberg.com> merely indicates the location on the Internet where applicant's Web site appears. It does not separately identify applicant's legal services as such. Cf. In re The Signal Companies, Inc., 228 USPQ 956 (TTAB 1986).

This is not to say that, if used appropriately, the asserted mark or portions thereof may not be trademarks or services mark. For example, if applicant's law firm name were, say, <eilberg.com> and were presented prominently on applicant's letterheads and business cards as the name under which applicant was rendering its legal services, then that mark may well be registrable. However, this is not the case before us."

The Panel does not understand the TTAB in In re Eilberg to have decided that a TLD identifier may not under any circumstances serve as a trademark or service mark. For purposes of this proceeding, the Panel need not determine whether a TLD or an alternate TLD, standing alone, may serve as a trademark or service mark. It notes that this may depend on the context in which the TLD is used.

Although Complainant has not registered ".SEX" as a service mark, rights in a mark may be established under common law [2]. Numerous decisions under the Policy have recognized rights in marks established under the common law [3]. Establishing common law rights in a mark entails demonstrating that the mark is used in commerce and is distinctive.

Although Complainant has used the term ".SEX" in commerce on the Internet, it has not demonstrated that the mark is distinctive. In order to make such a showing, Complainant would need to prove that the mark was arbitrary or suggestive, or that, if descriptive, had acquired adequate secondary meaning. To establish secondary meaning, Complainant would need to prove that consumers exclusively identified ".SEX" with its services, or that ".SEX" distinguished the services of Complainant in the minds of consumers from that of other service providers.

There is no doubt that "sex" is a generic or commonly descriptive word in the English language. No person or enterprise can establish an exclusive right in the word [4]. Adding a dot (".") before the word differentiates or distinguishes it from the word standing alone, but does not make it arbitrary or suggestive. In theory, the new term ".sex" might be identified by consumers exclusively with the services of a particular firm or enterprise. However, the terms ".sex" and "sex" are similar in visual impression and intended meaning. In order to establish that the new term is sufficiently distinctive, a Complainant would need to offer very substantial evidence that consumers in fact identified the new term exclusively with it services.

Complainant in this proceeding has not made such eithera showing. Its website offers to register ".sex" alternate registry domain names. There is no evidence provided that Complainant is the exclusive provider of ".sex" registry names [5]. The record rather reveals that several enterprises, including Respondent, are offering such alternate registry names or have applied to register trademarks incorporating ".sex". Moreover, the Panel notes that during ICANNís recent consideration of adoption of new generic TLDs, the establishment of a ".sex" gTLD was proposed and discussed by a number of parties [6]. Complainant has not presented evidence of exclusive rights in ".SEX", and there is substantial evidence to the contrary. In a case in which Complainantís claim involves a slight variation on a generic term, there is simply no reasonable basis for concluding that it has rights in ".SEX" as a service mark. The Panel determines that Complainant has failed to establish rights in the service mark ".SEX". Since it has not satisfied the first element of Paragraph 4(a) of the Policy, Complainant cannot succeed on a claim of abusive domain name registration and use against Respondent. The Panel need not make further determinations regarding allegations made by Complainant.

The Panel admonishes Complainant for its failure to disclose the USPTOís initial refusal of its service mark application, and for instead asserting that it had registered its mark. One member of the Panel considers that Complainant is not sophisticated regarding legal matters, and concludes that Complainantís misrepresentation was probably inadvertent. Nonetheless, it is difficult for the Panel to excuse a failure to disclose what must have seemed an obvious lack of service mark registration even to a comparatively unsophisticated party.

The Panel rejects Respondentís request for a finding of reverse domain name hijacking. There is substantial evidence in the record of this proceeding to put in issue Respondentís business practices. The Panel does not think it productive to lay out the evidence of those practices as a counterweight to Complainantís lack of full disclosure.

 

7. Decision

Complainant, Domain Name Systems, Inc., has failed to establish rights in the service mark ".SEX" for the purposes of satisfying Paragraph 4(a)(i) of the Policy. The Panel therefore rejects its claim of abusive domain name registration and use against Respondent, TBS Industries, and denies its request that the Panel ask the registrar to transfer the domain name <dotsex.com> from Respondent to it.

The Panel rejects Respondentís request for a finding of reverse domain name hijacking on the part of Complainant.

 


 

Frederick M. Abbott
Presiding Panelist

Milton L. Mueller
Panelist

Jeffrey M. Samuels
Panelist

Dated: October 16, 2001

 


Footnotes:

1. See 15 USCS ß 1057(b) (establishing presumption of exclusive right to use based on registration).

2. See, e.g., Century 21 Real Estate v. Billy Sandlin, 846 F.2d 1175 (9th Cir. 1988).

3. See, e.g., Adobe Systems Incorporated v. Domain OZ, WIPO Case No. D2000-0057, decided March 22, 2000, and; Desert Schools Federal Credit Union v. Symlink Communications, llc, WIPO Case No. D2001-0528, decided July 4, 2001.

4. See generally, Mil-Mar Shoe v. Shonac, 75 F. 3d 1153 (7th Cir. 1996).

5. One member of this Panel suggests that a showing by Complainant that it had received an assignment of the top level domain label ".sex" from ICANN, and/or that it was the exclusive occupant of that top-level domain in the registry services market, might serve to distinguish Complainant's registry services in the marketplace and create secondary meaning.

6. See, e.g., http://www.icann.org/tlds/tld-applications-lodged-02oct00.htm, including ".sex" registry proposals from Name.Space Incorporated and Rathbawn Computers Limited, et al.