Domain name monitoring remains a major issue

Veille noms de domainesWIPO, Arbitration and Mediation Center, Case No. D2022-0593, April 15th 2022, Photomaton v. Domains By Proxy, LLC / Ehren Schaiberger

In the decision made on April 15th, 2022, Photomaton had its UDRP complaint rejected, that concerned a domain name of which it was previously a holder of.

This case is likely to attract a lot of attention as it illustrates the importance of regular monitoring of domain names and other industrial property rights that are subject to renewal.

The case is concerned with the domain name <>, which, according to the evidence, was held by the company Photomaton from the 16th of January 2015 until January 2020. The situation may seem far-fetched, but it appears that the Complainant did not renew the domain name on time. The Respondent, Mega Domains, is a domainer who registers and puts domain names up for sale. At the time of this case, it held more than 10,000 domain names.

Respondent became the owner of the <> domain name when it expired via a so-called “Drop Catching” system. The logic suggests that the registration was done properly and that the Respondent had nothing to worry about, however the rules of the UDRP procedure are a little more complex.

What about a domainer who registers a domain name with a third party’s trademark that is not registered in the country where the domainer is located?

Complainant argued that it was the owner of French, EU and international trademark “PHOTOMATON” as well as the domain names <> and <>. Paragraph 4(a) of the UDRP provides that a combination of three elements are required to be met in order to claim the transfer of a disputed domain name: the existence of Complainant’s prior right that is confusingly similar to the domain name, evidence of absence of a right or legitimate interest of the domain name’s current holder and evidence of registration and use in bad faith of the domain name by the current holder.

Obviously, the first condition left no room for doubt for the Expert: the name was identical to the “PHOTOMATON” trademarks held by Complainant, as the gTLD “.com” was not considered in this comparison.

The second condition, on the other hand, was subject to more detailed consideration. Complainant argued that it had not given permission to Respondent to register and use the domain name in question and that Respondent was not known by the domain name or any of its derivatives, nor did it own any trademarks relating to the domain name. The Respondent argued that the term “Photomaton” was a descriptive term that he could register and resell at his convenience.

The Expert, far from stopping at a biased parallel between the English term “photo booth” and the term “photomaton”, affirmed by referring to an INPI decision, stating that the term “photomaton” was not considered descriptive in both English and French. In support of his argument, he added that even if the term had become restrictive, the domain name must be used genuinely, or at least clearly intended for such use, in relation to the dictionary definition and not for the purpose of trading in the trademark rights of others. This was not the case here, as Respondent had offered the domain name for sale on the ‘Dan’ platform for 37,000 US dollars, a price set on the basis of the notoriety of the term.

The third condition was the most controversial and the one that led the Complaint to fail. Complainant claimed that its trademark was an invented word, deemed distinctive by INPI case law, and it is very famous, at least in France, where it has been used for over 100 years. It was therefore unlikely that Respondent had registered the disputed domain name without knowing the Complainant’s trademark.  However, Complainant had not provided any evidence of the use of its brand or its scope in the United States, where Respondent was located.

Meanwhile, Respondent claimed that it did not know Complainant at the time of registration of the disputed domain name. Respondent added that his business consisted of the registration and resale of domain names that he considered descriptive. Respondent also provided evidence of the registration of numerous names containing the word “photo” or ending in “on”.

The Panel reflecting on the facts, concluded that it was clear that Complainant did not abandon its trademark, even if it did not renew the domain name, therefore a subsequent purchaser could not use it in a way that would conflict with its trademark right. The complexity of the case lies in the fact that Respondent argued that more than 100,000 domain names expire every day and that to avoid potential disputes, the latter used keywords that are likely to be rejected for registration, which included many trademarks. However, Respondent claimed to be using the databases of the US Trademark Office, where the mark “PHOTOMATON” was not registered. The Panel responded by stating that by offering the brand for sale on a worldwide scale, based solely on a US database, did not seem adequate in light of the database provided by WIPO.

The Panel concluded that the Complainant’s name was not registered as a trademark highlighting two points: firstly, a Google search made at the time of the registration of the domain name by Respondent did not clearly show Complainant’s trademark, but the geographical points where the photo booths were installed. Secondly, the Expert considered that Respondent had nonetheless undertaken numerous endeavours to ensure that the disputed domain name was not the subject of a trademark right. The Panel noted that failure to use a worldwide trademark database might not be excused in the future.

This is an unforeseen decision, which demonstrates the extent to which management of a domain name portfolio remains a major issue for companies of all sizes. So far, the <> domain name is still for sale on the website for 37,000 US dollars.