When Your Name Isn't Yours

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MARK RICHARDS FOR TIME

DALE GHENT acted fast and registered the domain name of the Microsoft founder. He has received more than 70,000 e-mails on it, most of them intended for Gates

For a star high school basketball player like Scott Hazelton, making it to the pros is the ultimate, often unattainable dream. But the 6-ft. 8-in. teenager from Lawrence, Mass., has at least one person who believes in him: Aran Smith, an Internet entrepreneur who registered the domain name without Hazelton's permission. Smith has spent some $15,000 staking a claim to more than 200 Internet addresses, mostly the names of promising high school athletes. If any of them make it big, Smith will own some valuable cyber real estate.

It's known as cybersquatting--registering Internet addresses containing someone else's name. It's easy enough to do because domain names are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis to whoever pays the $119 fee. And it has become so rampant that the government has begun a crackdown, with courts listening sympathetically to companies and individuals claiming their names have been misappropriated in Web addresses. In April a federal court took (missing a period to distinguish it from the investment company's site) away from a porn website. And the House of Representatives last week passed the Trademark Cyberpiracy Prevention Act, a bill that would give broad power to trademark holders to go after cybersquatters.

But is the clamor over cybersquatting justified? It's a clash of two visions of what the Internet should be: a standardized tool for business and communication, or a more freewheeling world closer to the Net's academic and techno-geek roots. Corporations want tough rules against cybersquatting to protect their trademarks. But civil libertarians warn against making the government an Internet supercop and say the new rules could stack the deck against the little guys.

Some kinds of cybersquatting clearly need to be banned, such as profiteers' hijacking celebrity names in order to direct traffic to for-profit sites selling vitamins or other products. People have a right of publicity--the right to control the use of their name and likeness for commercial purposes--and it should apply online. The new House bill would rightly strengthen this kind of protection.

But many of the new proposals to rein in cybersquatting would make it too easy for trademark holders to go after regular folks who register any of the countless words or names many companies have dibs on. That's what happened to David Sams, a Los Angeles man who registered for his 22-month-old daughter. Archie Comics threatened to sue, claiming it had the right to Veronica--and Archie, Jughead and Betty. The company backed down, but the bill passed by the House would make it easier for a company in Archie Comics' position to sue and win.

Then there are cybersquatting profiteers like Aran Smith, or the person who registered and then offered to sell it to the Tampa Bay Buccaneer lineman for $5,000. "Only in America could you steal someone's identity and sell it back to them," Sapp fumed to ESPN. It may be a lousy way to make a buck. But should it be illegal? No. Sapp doesn't have a right to his name as a dot.com. For one thing, at least five other Warren Sapps listed in phone books across the U.S. could make the same claim. In the end, Sapp set up his site at , using his jersey number, which seems like a decent outcome.

Whatever rules finally emerge, it would be a mistake to make them so strict that they wipe out the serendipity and occasional weirdness that exist in Internet domain names. Take . Type it into your browser, and you end up at a black screen with the single word Mail written on it in green. The low-rent feel is the first tip-off that the Microsoft founder has nothing to do with this site. It's run by Dale Ghent, a Generation-Y computer-systems engineer who--just out of high school, on a lark--grabbed the domain name before Gates did.

More than 70,000 people have sent e-mail to the site. It's mainly what you'd expect, Ghent says: heavy on computer problems and requests for money. It may be confusing, and a little misleading, but ultimately it's harmless. Ghent isn't trying to make any money from the site. "It's kind of a hobby," he says. "I'm just hanging out in cyberspace." Ghent says he's never tried to get the world's richest man to buy the site, and Gates hasn't approached him. If Bill Gates can survive without his domain name, we probably all can.