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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cybersquatters Stake Claims on .ru Web




Open up an Internet browser and type in http://www.putin.ru. What appears on the screen is not an electronic paean to the acting Russian president, nor a biography, nor a lampoon.


In fact, what does appear is a commercial proposal that seems to have nothing to do with Vladimir Putin at all: "To find out how to place information on this site, contact sites@softhome.net."


Visitors are also encouraged to visit Site Shop, which offers rather barebones information on e-mail, hosting and web-design services.


Though queries to that address brought no response, the site appears to be the work of cybersquatters - virtual bandits who grab up electronic addresses on the World Wide Web in hopes of reselling them or piggybacking to profit on someone else's name.


A clever prank? Maybe.


But some Russian companies and major multinationals - including Kodak, Coca-Cola, Nokia, Procter & Gamble, Mercedes-Benz, Russian commercial bank Rosbank and Soviet filmmaking giant Mosfilm, who have all found their brand names and trademarks usurped by other users - are not amused.


Many companies say the people they accuse of squatting have already tried to cut deals over the occupied domain names.


The site rosbank.ru, for example, contains an offer from a Moscow law firm to hand over the domain name in return for credit, and features an exhaustive list of other names - from aerovokzal.ru to zoopark.ru - it claims are in its holding.


Representatives from the satellite communications company Iridium Eurasia, meanwhile, said the occupier of iridium.ru, Alpha TeleCom, demanded advantages over other Iridium distributors in exchange for the site.


A spokesman for Alpha TeleCom said his company had merely tried to sell the address once, adding that they had a right to hold the domain because they sell Iridium products.


The issue isn't specific to Russia. International Internet authorities are moving to squelch squatting in the .com, .org and .edu domain zones.


Earlier in January, the World Intellectual Property Organization, a UN agency, ordered a California man to hand over the domain worldwrestlingfederation.com after he attempted to sell the address to the World Wrestling Federation, whose title is a registered trademark.


But in the .ru zone, cybersquatters appear to be running amok.


Despite protests from the local Internet community, experts at the Russian Institute of Public Networks - the agency that controls .ru - insist that laws on trademarks and intellectual property being brought to bear on squatters in the West simply do not apply in Russia.


It's a sign that businesses seeking to pioneer the Russian Internet are in for a wild ride.


Among those least amused is Kodak, which discovered that kodak.ru was occupied by a digital photography business called Spectr Service when "we had some customers tell us how terrible our site was," said Lynne Spink Garman, marketing director for Kodak's Russia operations.


Alexander Groundul, who registered the site on behalf of Spectr Service, said in a telephone interview that Kodak should be grateful for his services.


"I'm promoting their products," said Groundul, who added that Kodak has continued to supply his business and that he features Kodak products on his site.


But Spink Garman said that by using Kodak in the domain name, Groundul was piggybacking on the company's reputation and taking advantage of resources the multinational had spent in building and promoting its brand.


Fearing the company was losing control over its own brand identity, Kodak has now sued Groundul twice to get control of kodak.ru, once claiming its trademark rights had been violated and a second time over usurpation of its company name.


But Kodak has lost on both counts. The second ruling, analysts and attorneys say, confuses the issue more than ever, since Mosfilm, the Soviet-era film giant, won a near-identical case and managed to evict a squatter from mosfilm.ru.


"I can't understand why Kodak keeps losing," said Konstantin Vitskevich, the attorney who argued Mosfilm's case and is planning to file a complaint on behalf of another company.


Kodak attorney Yury Vatskovsky was likewise puzzled, saying his arguments in the second case, based largely on a clause of the Civil Code protecting firm names, were nearly identical to those used to Mosfilm's advantage in the same court.


In that suit, Judge Lyudmila Krasnova forced the Russian Institute of Public Networks to hand over the mosfilm.ru domain.


The judge who ruled on Kodak's suit could not be reached for comment. An appeal is pending.


Other companies say they would like to wrest trademark domain names away from their current occupiers. But Kodak's rough ride through the courts has dampened enthusiasm for court processes, and several companies said they would prefer to wait until their rights to trademark domain names are laid down in the law.


They may have a long wait. Drafts of new government Internet regulations, circulated on the Web and by e-mail, have raised cries of protest from industry analysts and businesses who say the government is more interested in grabbing control of the Internet for itself than encouraging new growth, especially among businesses.


Draft legislation on domain names, for example, would give the Press Ministry control over the national domain name registry and permit the government to exercise special control over domain names with special cultural, historical or state significance, such as president.ru or kulikovopole.ru.


For their part, officials at the Russian Institute of Public Networks, the current registry, say that Russian laws on trademarks and intellectual property will have to be amended to include the Internet - which is not specifically covered in current law, though it does not stipulate the Internet is excluded. Until then, they say they will continue registering addresses on a first-come, first-served basis.


Alexei Lesnikov, the institute's deputy director, says there simply isn't time to vet every domain name application for trademark violations.


"If there were some kind of requirements to take these trademarks into account when we register [domain names], it would just drag out the process," Lesnikov said. "That would harm the development of the Internet."