02|20|2012 01:10 pm EDT
The following is a guest post by Paul Raynor Keating, Esq. Paul is an attorney specializing in the domain space. He has offices in Barcelona and London.
Although the UDRP has functioned for over a decade, the evidence continues to mount in favor of a certification process so all can be assured that panelists have the proper legal knowledge and address claims seriously. Examples abound of panel errors but I have seen few that competes with the likes of Hardware Resources, Inc. v. Yaseen Rehman, Claim Number: FA1201001423229 (HardwareResources.org), a recent decision by NAF-favored panelist Atkinson (see the related study by Zak Muscovitch).
In Hardware Resources, the panelist was so absorbed with the Complainant’s assertions that he failed to examine even the most basic aspects of the claim. Granted the case was a default. But that provides little excuse given the obviousness of the problems. Given Mr. Atkinson’s litigation experience (he authored an article entitled “How to Respond to Trial Objections in 1995), I am somewhat perplexed.
Complainant asserted 4 registered trademarks for “HR Hardware Resources”. A 10-second trip to the USPTO site satisfied my surprise that the PTO would allow registration of such a descriptive trademark. Complainant’s “trademarks” consisted of 2 text marks and 2 design marks. Each of the marks contained the following disclaimer:
“NO CLAIM IS MADE TO THE EXCLUSIVE RIGHT TO USE “HARDWARE RESOURCES” APART FROM THE MARK AS SHOWN.”
The significance of the disclaimer is of course that the Complainant had expressly disclaimed the words “Hardware Resources” if they did not appear with “HR”. Perhaps Mr. Atkinson (or more likely the intern at NAF who may have written the decision?) missed that bit.
Notwithstanding the clear disclaimers, the Mr. Atkinson boldly stated:
“The differences between the mark and the disputed domain name include the deletion of the initial letters “H” and “R” of Complainant’s mark, the removal of the space between the terms, and the addition of the generic top-level domain (“gTLD”) “.org.” The Panel holds that removing letters from a mark does not differentiate a disputed domain name from the mark.”
Had Mr. Atkinson (or his associate) taken 20 seconds of time he could easily have discovered that the elimination the “HR” was in fact material for the simple reason that Complainant held no trademark rights in their absence. Actually, come to think if it, the disclaimer would have been printed in the trademark registration certificate that Complainant surely produced.
From this highpoint, the analysis gets only worse. Legitimate interest is found lacking because “using a confusingly similar disputed domain name to host pay-per-click links and pop-up advertisements, whether competing or not, does not constitute a bona fide offering of goods or services or a legitimate noncommercial or fair use according to Policy ¶¶ 4(c)(i) and 4(c)(iii).” Of course no mention is made of the descriptive nature of the asserted trademark or of the domain.
The authority for the panelist’s position? Two NAF decisions, Hewlett-Packard Co. v. Collazo, FA 144628 (Nat. Arb. Forum Mar. 5, 2003) and ALPITOUR S.p.A. v. Albloushi, FA 888651 (Nat. Arb. Forum Feb. 26, 2007). The panelist was obviously not familiar with either of the decisions. Hewlett-Packard addressed the domain HPCanada.com. HP is obviously a famous, non-descriptive mark and there could be no legitimate interest in using the domain to display links for computer equipment. Alpitour dealt with the domain BravoClub.com. The asserted mark was used for a hotel chain and obviously not descriptive; respondent used the domain for PPC for (surprise….) hotels. Exactly how HardwareResources.org presents a factual or legal scenario that is even close to Hewlet-Packard or Aplitour is a mystery.
Going from bad to worse, Mr. Atkinson next finds bad faith because Respondent offered to sell the domain to the Complainant for a whopping $40.00. Surely this is a joke. The opinion is apparently based on an empty allegation by complainant. God forbid there be any reference to evidence. I am always amazed how far panelists will go to “justify” an expansion beyond the actual text of the UDRP when doing so in favor of complainants. I rarely see this when the issue might favor the respondent. This $40-issue is yet another example. While it is possible that $40.00 was more than the out-of-pocket costs, the rule in this regard is tied to the concept of targeting and registering domain names for the purpose of holding them ransom to a known trademark holder. This case fails the mark by any stretch and by even mentioning the issue Mr. Atkinson opens both himself and the UDRP process to ridicule.
Yet again showing his preference for complainants, Mr. Atkinson finds bad faith registration based upon PPC use with websites that “have featured pay-per-click links, some relating to Complainant’s competitors and some being simply generic” and some that “displayed information about Complainant“. Mr. Atkinson thus finds that the respondent must have registered the domain “to attract consumers and create confusion for its own profit“. This is lumped together with the $40-issue to support a finding of bad faith.
It is telling that the only reference to “generic” was in the Complainant’s allegations. The panelist certainly does not mention the word or deal at all with the descriptive nature of the phrase at issue. The use of a descriptive domain for descriptive purposes has repeatedly been found both legitimate and in good faith. It has long been held that the foundational issue is whether the respondent “targeted” the complainant. Here, the Complainant had no trademark in “Hardware Resources”. The domain was used for – guess what – PPC links related to items long considered to be hardware-related. That Complainant may have appeared in any of the PPC links is the fault of the Complainant who voluntarily selected a less-than-stellar trademark.
The most important lesson to be learned here, however, is not that Mr. Atkinson should abstain from being involved in the UDRP process. The important lesson is that decisions such as these destroy the carefully structured balance of the UDRP process as a whole. Respondents are repeatedly told that they can legitimately register and use domain names for descriptive purposes. It instills little confidence in the “system” when panelists such as Mr. Atkinson issue ill-thought out opinions such as this one.
While panelists aren’t earning the salaries of bankers in New York, this case shows that 20 seconds of thought would have produced the correct result. Trademark disclaimers are there for a reason; without the disclaimer the USPTO would not have issued the registration. It defies logic to permit a registration with a disclaimer and then support a trademark in only what has been disclaimed. Complainants must be held responsible for selecting descriptive trademarks. After all, they do it for a reason – a descriptive mark gives them a leg-up on the competition. If a consumer is looking for “hardware”, coming across a sign for “hardware resources” leads to the assumption that one will indeed find hardware items there. However, having selected such descriptive marks they should not be permitted to use them as a sword to prevent others from doing so.
And, $40 for a domain name? I am not sure who was being sillier; the panelist in using this as bad faith or the respondent who thought it was a good idea to make the offer.