In the UK: be careful, choose the right route for domain name dispute: Michael Toth versus Emirates & Anor [2012] EWHC (Ch)

Nominet is the registry responsible for the <> domains and operates also a dispute resolution service. On a general level, as the allocation of the domain names has always been offered under the “first come, first served” approach, it can raise conflicts. When someone estimates that a domain name registration has been made in violation of his rights (like a trademark), he can envisage two different paths. Either he can go to court, following the normal process of a lawsuit, or he can file a complaint with Nominet, which provides its own extrajudicial procedure for domain name disputes.

This extra-judicial dispute procedure is set out in a document called “Dispute Resolution Service Policy” (DRS). After the filling of the complaint, parties have to pass through a mediation phase, which, in some cases, ends up, on a settlement. If the mediation fails, an Expert rules on whether there has been abusive registration of the domain name.

The decision of the Expert can be appealed with Nominet, which then appoint an appeal panel of three members from a group called the “Expert Review Group”. The Experts will only state on the abusive nature of the registration as for the first hearing of the case.

Airline operator Emirates has used the Nominet process described before to challenge the registration of the domain name <> on the basis of his trademark’s right.

The first Expert decided domain name’s registration was legitimate and Complainant appealed the case directly before Nominet. The panel of Experts reversed the decision and ordered the transfer of the domain name in dispute.

An appeal was then lodge before the High Court of Appeal.

The Judge explained that the DRS policy do not authorize the addition of parallel court proceedings on the point.

Indeed, if that were to happen, then any DRS procedures that were subsequently started would be immediately suspended under paragraph 20 of the procedure[1]. Therefore, “Complainant would be deprived, for the time being, of the proceedings which the DRS held him out”.

Furthermore, the High Court’s judge added that the Nominet procedure was “much more consistent with the conclusion that the question (of abusive registration) is one for the Expert alone”. The abusive registration of a domain name can only be held before Nominet.

The claim was therefore stroked out.

The accuracy of this decision has to be noted. The High Court of Justice made a strict interpretation of the DRS policy in order to protect the Nominet dispute procedure and explained precisely how the addition of a parallel route would have threaten the extrajudicial procedure.

Therefore, there could be no re-hearing of a second degree extrajudicial decision of Nominet. Furthermore, in the light of High Court decision, we might think that there should be no re-hearing of a first degree decision too. Indeed, Judge said the question of abusive registration was for the expert alone and consequently not for a Judge, even regarding a non-appealed decision.

Furthermore, it seems that UK Judges are not bound by a Nominet decision. Indeed, the deny of a “parallel route” highlight the independence between the two procedures. Consequently, it would be illogical to bind a Judge by an Expert decision. Moreover, the possibility of a new judgement, independent from an extrajudicial decision has already been set out for the UDRP by the United States District court in May 10, 2001[2].

The independence of the two procedures keeps them safe one from another. Indeed, the Expert and the Judge do not rule the same way since the Expert could only decide on the abusive registration of the domain name. If a re-hearing of a Nominet decision had been authorized before the Judge, this later would have decided in the light of the abusive registration too. Consequently, this could have created an interference with other law like trademarks. For example, a trademark infringement is independent from any king of abusive behaviour from the infringer. Authorizing a re-hearing would have introduced a new unforeseen kind of exception.

[1] Paragraph 20 of the DRS procedure « Effect of Court Proceedings » :

a. If legal proceedings relating to a Domain Name are issued in a court of competent jurisdiction before or during the course of proceedings under the DRS and are brought to out attention, we will suspend the proceedings, pending the outcome of the legal proceedings.

[2] United States District Court, Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandra Division, May 10, 2001, Dan Parisi v. NetLearning Inc.