A potential spat over domain names and AdWord spoiling tactics was resolved before it really began last week. New firm Localist (a subsidiary of NZ Post) filed proceedings against Yellow Pages Group (YPG), after YPG registered the domain names www.localists.co.nz and www.locallists.co.nz, and registered similar Google AdWords.
Internationally, disputes over domain names and AdWords are not new (see my post, Trade marks and AdWords). Some see the ease of registering domains and search terms, and the apparent lack of a sanction, as an open invitation to do so as a spoiling tactic against a potential competitor. But firms should be in no doubt that they are on thin legal ice when they get too close to a competitor’s trade mark or otherwise act in bad faith.
While there are potentially other legal remedies available, the starting point for most disputes involving domain names and search terms is the Fair Trading Act 1986. Among other things, this Act contains a general prohibition on business conduct that is “misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive”, and misleading conduct in relation to trade marks. Note that there is no prohibition on “unfair conduct”. It has to be “misleading or deceptive” to a third party.
While there has yet to be a New Zealand case on AdWords involving trade mark infringement and / or misleading & deceptive conduct, last year’s European case involving Google and Louis Vuitton did provide some guidance. There is little doubt, for example, that registering and directing a competitor’s trade mark alone to your own website would be unlawful. It gets more murky when a company simply registers an AdWord to block a competitor from registering it. That would be unlikely to amount to trade mark infringement.
The primary remedy for .nz domain name dispute is the .nz Domain Name Commission‘s Dispute Resolution Service. Unlike the Fair Trading Act, this service can provide a remedy where a competitor has acted in an “unfair” manner. Disputes unable to be solved informally are referred to experts – including former senior commercial judge Sir Ian Barker and senior IP barristers – for determination. At $1,800+gst, it’s far cheaper than the Court process, though the input of a lawyer in preparing the relevant submissions can be beneficial.
For other TLD domains, it is a matter of using the relevant dispute resolution service, or Court proceedings.
In all cases though, the Fair Trading Act (and other general laws such as passing off) still apply, meaning that Court action can be taken in appropriate circumstances. If non-domain name issues are also involved, it may be more efficient to simply include the domain name complaint in any notices sent to the other party, or Court proceedings filed, than to attempt standalone determination, although it depends on the specific circumstances (e.g. if time is of the essence).
Localist was successful in forcing Yellow Pages to back down from what clearly seemed to be pretty sneaky behaviour, even if it did take a hefty statement of claim to do so. But the lesson remains: register! A .nz domain name costs all of about $21, or less than 5 minutes of a lawyer’s billable rate. It will probably cost less to register half a dozen domain name variations than it will to get your lawyer to read & reply to your email after a situation has arisen. Firms don’t need to register every possible variation just because an unscrupulous competitor may try to ankle-tap them; there are strong remedies for misleading or deceptive conduct. But at least grab the obvious domain names and (hopefully) prevent any cybersquatting in the first place.