Tuesday, 17 January 2017

New Zealand Domain Name Disputes

The New Zealand Domain Name Commission has published disputed domain name decisions relating to the .nz space for many years. It was therefore interesting to read the three December decisions which while based on the New Zealand policy, will be no surprise to those who follow the UDRP decisions issued by WIPO.

The first two decisions were relatively routine because they were attempts to use well-established trademarks to register a domain name. In both cases the respondent did not take any steps to defend the claims, and it was inevitable that the names would be transferred back to the trademark holder. There appears to be a certain level of naïvety in relation to attempts to use such domain names, because whether under the New Zealand policy or under WIPO decisions for UDRP cases, a clear violation of the trademark will always result in a transfer. So it is the expected outcome that
ritzcarlton.co.nz, ritzcarlton.nz and wisesmaps.co.nz were transferred respectively to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, L.L.C. and to NZ Directories IP Limited (publisher of Wises directories and maps).

The third decision in relation to a domain which is newplymouthnz.co.nz was actually defended. The principles used to decline the transfer and dismiss the application will be familiar to those who follow UDRP decisions. Mr Pulford, the respondent, had registered the domain name on October 10, 2003. The complainant, the New Plymouth District Council, owned a number of domain names which included newplymouthnz.com, and 6 other domain names, all of which resolved to their website. The council asserted that it had been using a website for at least 13 years, and the domain name was used on all their forms and stationery. Many local authorities appear to use the 2nd level domain of .govt.nz, so this council is a little unusual in its use of that name. Nothing comes of this  however.

Mr Pulford is a resident of New Plymouth and said in his response that he had previously used the domain name for a number of purposes including businesses which he had run in the city. The problem arose because he had some sort of disagreement with the council, and then directed the domain name to a website which included material which upset the council. The council claimed the material was defamatory and unauthorised. The website contained a photograph of a council employee and comments about several council employees and former employees. The council attempted to negotiate with Mr Pulford to ask him to remove the website content, but his response was that he had no intention of doing so would not stop using this domain name.

The council claimed that their business was disrupted because they could not set up a new website, which was delayed a few months, because the council was concerned that the public would access Mr Pulford's site rather than the official council site. This problem became exacerbated because Mr Pulford then changed the direction so that the site pointed to a pornographic website.

The very experienced panellist, Clive Elliott QC, gently chided the council for the quality of its submissions. He pointed out that a complainant must establish the requisite rights, and commented that he expected that they would have better articulated the basis on which the rights were claimed. He reminded them that the online forms stressed the need to provide supporting evidence of the use of an unregistered mark or of the reputation of the mark or name. He also suggested that because publication of previous decisions had been made for many years, this should help articulate any cases based on the precedents. This comment was necessary because he then went on to say that the council appeared to have assumed that because it was the local authority in New Plymouth, that this established the relevant rights in this domain name. He cited a number of DRS and UDRP decisions which make it clear that the legal authority of a geographic area does not have an exclusive right to that name, even though they may be able to claim a trademark. However in this case such evidence was entirely absent and no rights could be established in relation to this name. So it was not necessary to consider whether this was an unfair registration under the New Zealand policy.

In an interesting twist, even though he rejected the argument for the council, he did consider that the direction to a pornographic website may have been an unfair use of the domain name, in the sense of disrupting the business of the council, but for the finding that the council had no rights to the name anyway. So if Mr Pulford had restricted the redirection of the name to the website critical of the council he would have been on safer grounds. Although this comment would be considered obiter, or not binding as a precedent, it is something of a warning.

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