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This Intellectual Property Proves to Be Free Range

February 07, 2001|Steve Chawkins

I'm taking bids on all my Web sites and the asking price has never been lower.

Oh, I thought I was being so clever. After all, if Washington Mutual, the developer behind the controversial Ahmanson Ranch proposal, could try to thwart its foes by laying claim to the names of potential anti-Ahmanson Web sites, surely I could do a little preemptive Web-naming myself.

The possibilities to protect yourself by cornering the market on anti-you Web site names seemed endless.

Needless to say, I was inspired by the example of Washington Mutual.

In a deft move, the Seattle bank snagged

Along with


It was a beautiful strategy.

The bank executives said it was all to protect a trademark. They also threatened to sue activists operating a Web site called, where you can find vigorous rhetoric denouncing the project's 3,050 homes, its traffic, its pollution, its adverse effect on the rare frogs that call it home.

Then WIPO weighed in.

That's WIPO--the World Intellectual Property Organization, not the 1962 Surfaris instrumental hit featuring the maniacal laugh and the heavy bass.

Affiliated with the United Nations, the World Intellectual Property Organization is based in Geneva. It describes itself as "an international organization dedicated to promoting the use and protection of works of the human spirit."

It might be a stretch, I suppose, to consider a work of the human spirit.

Even so, WIPO was asked to arbitrate the dispute over Web site names between the Ahmanson developers and the Ahmanson detractors.

My compliments to the combatants: It takes a certain je ne sais quoi to skip beleaguered local planners, overworked Superior Court judges, professional dispute-resolution gurus, hypnotherapists and advice columnists, and instead head straight for Switzerland.

Forget about a federal case; the Ahmanson Web site fracas became a global case, to be settled by the agency that administers things like the Budapest Treaty on the International Recognition of the Deposit of Microorganisms for the Purposes of Patent Procedure.

True, the arbitration panel consisted of American lawyers, but I like to think they sipped brandy and used unnecessary Euro-exclamations--"Soup de jour! Thees ees non-zense!"--while deliberating.

Now, at last, the decision has been rendered.

Here it is,

The developers are not masters of their domain names.

Their arguments, it turned out, are as hole-riddled as a good Swiss cheese. "Ahmanson" is a prominent California family name affixed to buildings and charitable foundations, and Ahmanson Ranch is a well-established place name. Opponents of the Ahmanson Ranch development have every right to use "Ahmanson" in their Web site names. Case closed. Or, as they might say in Geneva, c'est fini.

Anti-development activists called it a victory for free speech.

Washington Mutual said it needed time to ponder its options.


Steve Chawkins can be reached at or at 653-7561.

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