It's the case of Johnny U. vs. Johnny Who?
The firm that manages the business affairs of Johnny Unitas, the famed former Baltimore Colts quarterback, has taken legal action against a Baltimore lawyer who reserved the Internet Web site name JohnUnitas.com.
Unitas Management Corp., which is run by the athlete's son, John C. Unitas Jr., is embroiled in a dispute with William M. Chaires. Unitas' company, which operates a Web site called JohnnyUnitas.com, contends that Chaires has no right to the similar domain name, which Chaires purchased for $100 last summer.
One of the arbitration panels that rules on challenges to Internet Web site names is to hear the case in the next two months, but a date hasn't been set. Either side could appeal the panel's decisionto the federal courts.
"He doesn't have a right to it," Unitas, 67, whose career with the Colts from 1956 to 1972 earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and recognition as one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history, said of Chaires and the Web site name. "I didn't give him a right to use it."
Chaires, 46, doesn't actually run a Unitas Web site with the name. He paid to reserve that name and several others, including oriolebird.com and mike-jordan.com, with the intention of using them to launch commercial sites on the Internet in the future. After seeing that several names related to "Colts" were taken, he was surprised to find that JohnUnitas.com was still available.
Last summer, he paid one of the scores of brokers of Internet domain names $100 to reserve the name. In October, he paid $327 to a Baltimore firm, Chesapeake Internet, to host and design a site based on the name to sell Baltimore Colts and football memorabilia. He already runs an online auction site, "Noreserve.com."
He hadn't gotten his football site off the ground when CMG Worldwide Inc. filed a complaint against him on behalf of Unitas Management Corp. The Indianapolis-based company markets the name and images of 200 of the "greatest legends of the 20th Century," including Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe and Malcolm X.
CMG contends that Chaires' reservation of other sports celebrity names is a sign of "bad faith" in the complex system that decides the rightful holders of Internet names.
Basically, anyone can claim any Web site address on the Internet for a fee on a first-come, first-served basis. If someone else thinks he has an inherent claim to that address, he can file with one of four arbitration panels that are empowered to decide such disputes. The Unitas complaint probably will be heard later this spring by the National Arbitration Forum, a Minneapolis-based network of former judges, lawyers and law professors.
The younger Unitas said that his firm offered to pay an undisclosed price for Chaires' domain name, but that he won't be "extorted."
Chaires said he was never offered a cent.
"It's not about John Unitas. It's not about money, really. It's where do you draw the line?" Chaires said. "Can someone, just because they're famous, reserve two names for themselves on the Internet?"
Jonathan Faber, director of business and legal affairs for CMG, said that although sports fans typically referred to the quarterback as "Johnny Unitas" or "Johnny U.," his birth name and the one he uses professionally and in his signature is "John." It is also the name given to his son and a grandson, John Unitas III.
"That's another reason this is hitting a sore spot," Faber said.
Unitas' 5-year-old "official Web site" includes links to his Baldwin-based management company, which promotes Unitas for advertising and endorsement prospects. It also promotes Unitas' real estate company and his Golden Arm Educational Foundation, which has distributed $350,000 in scholarship aid to college athletes. Also for sale on the Web site is Unitas memorabilia, from a $250 football helmet bearing the Colts' horseshoe logo and the quarterback's trademarked signature to a $1,900 foot-tall bronze casting of Unitas rearing back to throw.
"The reality is my father and guys of his era did not make the money they make today," said John C. Unitas Jr., 44, president and chief executive officer of the company that bears his family name. "This is a way for them to make some money off the marketplace."
"Whoever this guy is, if he thinks he can get away with it, he has another think coming," Unitas Jr. said. "It's making money off the sweat of another man's brow."
Johnny Unitas.com receives about 870 daily "hits" - users calling up the Web site. The Unitases declined to say how much revenue it generates. "They do all right with it," the father said.
There's been plenty of controversy over Internet domain names as speculators snapped up famous names and common phrases they hoped they could resell for thousands or even millions of dollars.
A Baltimore firm that recently laid off half its staff, BulkRegister.com, registers names to businesses, thousands at a time. A Bethesda company, BuyDomains.com, has an inventory of 15,000 Web names for sale, including "congressional.com" for $14,888.
An international nonprofit organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, oversees the assigning of Internet domain names. About 30 companies licensed by ICANN register domain names for a fee. About 30 million have already been reserved.
Challenges are becoming more common - and are apt to increase as ICANN considers adding Internet name suffixes beyond ".com," ".net" and ".org."
One of the Internet arbitration panels, the World Intellectual Property Organization, reported receiving six new cases a day in December, up sixfold from January 2000. In all, it received 1,850 cases last year alleging "cybersquatting" by people who reserved names for Web sites that others thought were rightfully theirs. The complainants won 80 percent of the 1,000 cases that were settled.
Two months ago, the panel ruled against a woman in Dublin, Ireland, who allegedly sought more than $1 million for VenusandSerenaWilliams.com from the tennis-playing sisters.
Like the Williamses, Unitas trademarked his name. However, celebrities have won Internet cases over their famous names without registered trademarks, including singer Celine Dion last month.
Chaires, a self-described fan of Baltimore's former football team, said it doesn't make him feel particularly good fighting with a Baltimore sports hero. But he's even more offended, he said, by what he considers corporate strong-arm tactics against him. "I worked on the tobacco litigation for Peter Angelos, and these guys are worse than the tobacco lawyers," he said.
Unitas said these Internet battles are strange territory for him, although he recalled having to warn an area company during his Colts playing days to cease using a silhouette image in its advertising. It bore a striking resemblance to Unitas, who was widely recognizable to sports fans by his flattop haircut and high-top cleats. The company stopped, he recalled.
In 17 years with the Colts, and a final season with the San Diego Chargers in 1973, he amassed numerous records, including most consecutive games - 47 - with a touchdown pass. The 1958 title game in which Unitas led the Colts over the New York Giants is considered by sports historians as the greatest pro football game ever.
"I've never really had anybody try to play off the name," Unitas said. "Everything changes, technology changes, but people still try to do goofy things."