The Origins of 'Cybersquatting'

"Cybersquatting" is a term that is loosely used to describe the registration or use of a domain name that is confusingly similar to someone else's trademark, without permission. The word surely is an extension of the legal definition of "squatter," which apparently was first used in 1788 to describe "one that settles on property without right or title or payment of rent." One of the earliest judicial references to "cybersquatting" is a 1998 opinion from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, Avery Dennison Corporation v. Jerry Sumpton. The case -- decided before the arrival of the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) -- involved a dispute over the domain names <> and <>, which were identical to two trademarks owned by the plaintiff.

In that case, the judge opened his decision with the following:

Defendants are "cybersquatters," as that term has come to be commonly understood. They have registered over 12,000 internet domain names not for their own use, but rather to prevent others from using those names without defendants' consent. Like all "cybersquatters," defendants merely "squat" on their registered domain names until someone else comes along who wishes to use them. Like all "cybersquatters," defendants usurp all of the accepted meanings of their domain names, so as to prevent others from using the same domain names in any of their accepted meanings. And like all "cybersquatters," defendants seek to make a financial return by exacting a price before consenting to allow others to use the domain names on which they have chosen to "squat."

(Interestingly, the district court granted Avery Dennison Corporation's motion for summary judgment -- a decision that was later reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.)

Soon after the Avery Dennison decision, another U.S. court, in a dispute over the domain name <>, wrote that "[c]ybersquatting involves the registration as domain names of well-known trademarks by non-trademark holders who then try to sell the names back to the trademark owners."

And, one of the early and frequent domain name registrants targeted by trademark owners was John Zuccarini, described as a "notorious cybersquatter" in a 2000 district court decision from the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. (Zuccarini was arrested in Florida in 2003 on child pornography charges; a newspaper article at the time said he "is without a doubt the biggest cybersquatter on the Internet.")

These decisions were soon followed, in 1999, by the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA), certainly the first U.S. law (if not the first law anywhere) to use the word "cybersquatting" in its title. The ACPA's findings refer to cybersquatting as "the unauthorized registration or use of trademarks as Internet domain names or other identifiers of online locations."

One of the earliest UDRP decisions to reference "cybersquatting" -- involving the domain name <> and filed by the musician of Van Halen fame -- observed that this new dispute policy was "not designed to combat trademark infringement on the Internet or even questionable cases of cybersquatting, but rather, abusive, bad faith cybersquatting." Yet, interestingly, the decision did not define cybersquatting.

Through the years, "cybersquatting" has become a popular term. It has been used in nearly 4,000 domain name dispute decisions at WIPO; 1,100 decisions at the Forum; and 852 U.S. federal court decisions.

Today, UDRP decisions often reference cybersquatting as if it is a common practice after all these years. In one recent UDRP decision, the panel wrote that the "Respondent is engaging in a textbook case of trademark infringement and cybersquatting." In another, a trademark owner referred to the domain name registrant's "serial cybersquatting behavior."

Despite changes in the law and on the Internet, cybersquatting remains rampant.