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A Closer Look at the Katie.com Domain Name Controversy

Rod Dixon

Every time an individual logs on to the Internet a pornographer is able to copy the stream of digital bits created by the computer user's Internet connection. The data bits are used to compile a database of information about Internet user buying habits and sexual tastes. These pornographers use the information secretly collected from logged in computers to alter the category or type of pornographic images uploaded onto various websites. Pornographers, for example, know that as a result the pornography in Cyberspace is of an extremely disturbing sort when compared to porn found in "real-space." Internet users are primarily known fans of sexual images of incest, bestiality, and torture. Cyber porn — as it is often called — is bigger, badder, and more extreme.

In 1995, the foregoing absurd facts (See, Mike Godwin's Critique of the Time Magazine Article and the Rimm Study) were actually reported as scholarly research intended to influence the highly contentious public policy debates over the regulation of pornography in Cyberspace. Although, the study was exposed as a hoax or at least the result of remarkably juvenile work, the study succeeded as an augmentation of the hysteria surrounding a perceived need to rid the Internet of indecent speech. Like a heat seeking missile, when advocates lock onto a technology because it is feared for its interconnection to sexual practices, explosive hysteria abounds.

The United States Congress is still engaged in the pursuit of a decade-long struggle to develop schemes to regulate free speech in Cyberspace. Recently, quite surprisingly, one domain name dispute, spawned from a private sector mission to link sex and technology in a blameworthy dimension, was favorably resolved with no apparent need to struggle with applying traditional legal frameworks to restrict the innovatory communication medium we call the Internet. The dispute involved the author and publisher of the book titled — katie.com — who no longer will interfere with the rights of the domain name holder of the website — katie.com. Though the book's objective to link sex and technology in a blameworthy dimension will not change, the upcoming re-release of the book will carry a new title and no longer will tread upon the legitimate interests Katie Jones, the domain name owner of — katie.com.

With permission from no one, Penguin Putnam Publishing entitled a book Katie.com, despite the fact that the book title directly referred to a domain name registered by an individual who was unrelated and unconnected to the publisher or the book's author. According to the publisher, the book was released before the publisher discovered the website katie.com. Jones disputes the publisher's claim and provides a persuasive argument that regardless of when the publisher discovered its error. Had the facts been reversed, it is doubtful that Penguin Putnam Publishing would allow free-riding on a registered or purported trademark for four years before using the Uniform Dispute Resolution Procedure (UDRP) to yank katie.com away from the alleged offender. In response, one might say that Jones should not have slept on her rights when the success of the book began interfering with her enjoyment of the domain name by receipt of unsolicited email messages and possible diminished bandwidth capacity. But, the point runs precisely in the opposing direction; namely, the rights of individual domain name holders often are not respected by powerful commercial interests, and that neither ICANN nor the United States government supports establishing an online, low cost alternative dispute resolution forum similar to the UDRP, perhaps, but would enable individuals like Katie Jones a genuine opportunity to resolve domain disputes in less than four years.

In 2000, katie.com was published by Penguin Putnam Publishing; according to the publisher, the book provides an "eye-opening account of teenager's descent into the seductive world of the Internet." Apparently, the publisher successfully took on the ambitious task of publishing a book about the "world of the Internet," yet did so somehow without any awareness that the book's title was identical to a pre-existing domain name. This misstep ordinarily may constitute a minor distraction for a publisher of a book on other topics, but a book about the Internet targeted toward young readers, should likely require a rerun of the printing press with a different book title, if the current domain name holder refuses to sell or license the domain name.

No such luck for Katie Jones, who had no interest in selling her domain name. Katie Jones is an Internet chat room moderator and privacy consultant, who uses the domain name as her personal Web site. Penguin Putnam Publishing may have rubbed a rabbit's foot and hoped for the best as it authorized the first release of the book using katie.com as the title. The book's mission seemed to have overtaken other concerns as Katie Jones became the mark in the crosshatch of the bizzarro world of publishing and unrefined political agenda-setting. Selling a popular book about "the seductive world of the Internet" to young readers may amount to domain name theft if the fact that Katie Jones need not accept the publisher's attempt at free-riding on her email services and website bandwidth or server traffic is monetized or considered damages. The first release of the book prompted an enormous flow of traffic to Katie Jones's website as well as thousands of emails sent from young readers hoping to reach the author.

Unfortunately, individual domain name holders are not widely known to receive compensation for interference with the enjoyment of their intellectual property. Too often, it seems individual domain name holders find their interests viewed as entirely irrelevant.

Although Penguin Putnam Publishing disputed rumors that, acting on its behalf, a lawyer used strong-arm tactics aimed at twisting the domain name, katie.com, from the hands of Katie Jones, Jones claims that a lawyer, Parry Aftab, apparently, on behalf of the author, cryptically informed Jones that if the domain name was not handed over, "things would only get worse." Regardless of the actual source of the attempted theft of Jones's domain name, it is apparent that those on a mission to link sex and technology with sexual misconduct had developed a fierce craving for a domain name that happened to be the same name given the title of a book released by the publisher: Katie.com.

When the book was released it achieved critical and commercial success. Jones had written a book about the unwelcome advances of a man she met in a hotel room after chatting online on several occasions. She was a young teenager at the time.

When it comes to the concerns of children, certainly, parents often do express justifiable unease and distress over the legitimate concerns about who or what their kids are exposed to when given access to the Internet. For those who maintain the obligation to balance competing concerns for the safety of children against genuine concerns for preserving civil liberties, most readily accept the notion that liberty must yield to carefully balanced regulation. Even so, the impulse to allow a general fear of technology swell into a misguided conviction that the technology, itself, is dangerous must be resisted by an enlightened society. Katie's story is not just about balancing interests when technology is linked to sexual conduct. Under scrutiny, the facts of Katie's story highlight enormously significant issues regarding the proper degree of parental involvement in the activities of children.

Undoubtedly, there are still those who regard technologies like the Internet as inherently dangerous. This follows, in part, from a failure to discard impertinent conceptions of technology. To find a way out of archaic approaches to technology that has been borrowed from another age is a daunting task for some. Yet, trivial links between sexual conduct and technology, particularly with regard to the Internet, undermine the innovatory openness highly valued by Internet users and supported by Internet technologies.

Similarly, legal rules governing property rights in domain names have largely resisted reformulation when directed toward freedom of expression or non-trademark-oriented uses. Hence, Katie Jones not only was without a low cost forum to assert her own rights, but could have been forced to defend a domain name she had lawfully acquired. Some commercial interests have demonstrated an implacable and ferocious appetite for domain names held in non-commercial use by individual domain name holders. In addressing her own circumstance as a domain name holder, Katie Jones indicated that the situation she faced was:  "like having your home address made into a book title, and then everyone shows up at your doorstep looking for the main character…Domain name owners have just as much at stake as regular property owners." (See, Courttv.com)

Shortly after Jones's story was recently published and debated in several blogs, including Slashdot and Greplaw, (and after four years of book sales under the title "Katie.com"), the publisher relented and agreed to re-title the book. In the fall, the publisher is expected to re-launch the book as A Girl's Life Online. Although the title amplifies a purported link between technology and sexual practice more strongly than ever, the promised name change is a big win for those who believe individual domain name holders have rights — that should be respected — in the domain names they lawfully acquire. 

By Rod Dixon, Attorney
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