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An Internet trademark is an unofficial term relating to domain name rights on the Internet. It’s unofficial because there is, in fact, no such thing as an Internet trademark. Instead, it’s a general term referring to the relationship between trademark laws and domain names.
Understanding the concept of an Internet trademark requires that one first understand the domain name system (DNS) and how it works. DNS assigns a unique, easy-to-remember domain name to every Internet protocol (IP) address. Each domain name features three parts — a top-level domain (TLD), a second-level domain (SLD), and the host. The host is always "www," while the TLD is either a two-letter country code or, in the case of the United States, one of six possible names such as "com," "net," "org," or "gov."
The issue of an Internet trademark comes into play when dealing with the SLD. The individual registering the domain can assign any name to the SLD so long as it hasn’t already been taken. The problem with this is that domain name registrars frequently fail to check the desired name against a trademark registry. This can and has led to many serious Internet trademark infringement issues.
Sometimes a person will innocently assign an SLD name, not realizing that the name is already being used by an actual entity. Other times, someone might purposefully register a trademarked name and then sell it the company that holds the trademark associated with that name. Such people are known as cybersquatters. In some rare instances, a company might register the name of a competitor, and then launch a website that makes the competitor look bad.
After the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) was passed in 1999, legitimate trademark owners were given the right to bring action against such individuals. Unlike a typical court proceeding, however, a trademark infringement suit is first handled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The process used to resolve it is known as the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP).
The trademark owner must prove that the chosen domain name is either identical to or too similar to the trademarked name, or that the registrant purposefully chose the name in bad faith. If the owner loses the case with ICANN, he then has the option of pursuing a lawsuit through a local court of law. The defendant is also protected to a degree, because he can file a countersuit to try to stop the domain name from being transferred.
Again, there is no such thing as an Internet trademark. The Internet is a complicated place with few rules. Therefore, people looking to register a domain should be extremely prudent with the choices they make. When going up against an actual trademark owner, domain-name owners frequently end up on the losing end of the battle.