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Some cry foul in fight for Net domain names

THE BALTIMORE SUN

What's in a name? If you ask the owners of JimSmith.com, BrianFrank. com and many other people who have registered their fairly common birth names as dot-coms, the answer is jealousy.

"Why the hell is there a Web site with my name?" one amazed visitor to Brian Frank.com wrote on the site's guest book.

"I can't believe you've wasted this url.com on this content," whined another. "My name is Brian Frank and ... [I'm] trying to start up my site and I see this."

"My name is also Brian Frank," a third visitor wrote, anchoring a string of messages from people who shared the same name. "I think that this site should be transformed into a portal" through which all Brian Franks can have their own Web pages. "Let's discuss."

When the 24-year-old owner of BrianFrank.com, a computer software manager from Menlo Park, Calif., registered his name with Network Solutions a little more than a year ago, the Cornell University graduate planned to use it for his resume. He hadn't anticipated meeting so many Brian Franks, fielding questions about whether he was someone's long-lost friend or having to apologize for registering the dot-com first, but that's the confusing situation many domain name registrants are finding themselves in as increasing numbers of people attempt to register vanity Web sites.

"It's a growing trend," said Erica Lin, marketing director for Register.com, one of 61 accredited and operational companies that register domain names with the international master domain name file maintained by Network Solutions in Herndon, Va. Register.com has processed more than 2 million of the estimated 20 million domains that are registered for periods of one to 10 years at a cost of about $35 annually. Lin would not reveal specific statistics but said her company has registered tens of thousands of personal-name dot-coms, dot-nets and dot-orgs.

"Domain names were initially thought of as businesses," she said, "but as more and more people get educated about [them] and what they can be used for ... we've seen a lot more people registering their names."

How those people are using them ranges from the mundane to the shamelessly self-promotional to flat-out bizarre. John Dillon in Manitoba, Canada, uses his self-titled dot-com for the single purpose of posting photographs of his vintage Volkswagen bus and the progress he's making on repairing its rusty roof.

Barry Jones uses his to promote a hypnosis practice. The site's opening page features an animated, swirling vortex that roams across the smiling mug of its creator, Barry Jones himself. Chris Johnson, the 29-year-old owner of Chris.com, posts an extensive photo gallery of his family and friends, with pictures of himself dating back to kindergarten.

"It's just my stupid, personal Web page," said Johnson, who registered his first name only, believing that shorter is better. "I couldn't really think of anything else to do with it. That's really going to irritate a lot of people who want this domain name," said Johnson, a San Francisco computer consultant who paid nothing for the URL when he registered it five years ago. That was before so many businesses found commercial applications for the Internet.

"There's people that send me threatening e-mails that they want it, and they know where I live," said Johnson, whose personal information, like that of everyone else who registers a name, is logged as a "WhoIs" file through Network Solutions.

An Australian company once offered him $10,000 for it, but Johnson didn't bite. "I'm not interested in the money. I like having it," he said. "It's just a thing, and it's fun."

The $10,000 that Johnson was offered is a lot more money than Doug Friend thought a personal domain name could fetch. "I don't think there's going to be the same market there as where you've seen 'Business.com' selling for millions of dollars," said Friend, president of Register4Less, a domain name registration firm in Montreal. He had predicted a top price of $500.

Cyber-squatters

Savvy individuals are getting in on the commercial name game. Like they've done with corporate identities, some cyber-squatters are registering random first-and-last name combinations so they can park them on Web-hosting services with a price tag.

JuanRodriguez.com, for example, is going for $695. MattCarter. com, for some reason, comes at a premium and has an asking price of $800. Both are registered to John Wichmann, a New Yorker who didn't respond to requests for an interview.

While it is not illegal to purchase a name with the intent of reselling it for profit, it does beg a couple of questions: Who owns a name when thousands of people share it? And can someone own a personal domain when he does not bear the name himself?

On the Internet, the simple answer is generally that a name's ownership goes to whoever thought to register it first. But the early-bird-gets-the-worm rule can be, and has been, legally challenged in a number of high-profile cases. Earlier this year, Julia Roberts won an arbitration against Russell Boyd, who was using Julia Roberts.com to run a parody site on the actress. Boyd has since taken the issue to federal court and sued Roberts.

According to the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers in Marina del Rey, Calif., which the U.S. Department of Commerce has vested with Internet regulatory authority, a domain name registration could be contested if someone with the real name laid claim to it, if a company used the name as a trademark or if someone famous with the same name made a play for it.

Pity the person who shares their name with a person who later becomes famous. They will most likely lose their claim, even if they registered the domain name first and are otherwise legitimately entitled to it because it is also their legal name.

'Ahead of the curve'

Seth Gordon, who owns a public relations firm in Miami, is hedging his bets. Last year, he registered LauraBradley.com for his wife, an aspiring pop singer.

"I'm looking ahead of the curve, anticipating that time when her adoring fans need a place to get information about her," said Gordon. "We don't want to find out too late that somebody else has taken her domain name. We want to get it before she's famous."

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