At first domain names were simply meant to be addresses. Since the commercialisation of the Internet in 1994, they have also become the trade marks of the Web. There are two problems with this state of affairs: the Web is no respecter of boundaries (whether national, cultural or legal) and there is no adequate system in place to regulate them. Meanwhile, in the real world, trade marks must be registered nation by nation, class by class, and are subject to checks and examinations on the way. On the Web, one registration covers everything, everywhere, for good or ill (and usually for only a few pounds).
At first this was seen as a goldmine - you just needed a memorable domain name (say pets.com or realestate.com) and trade would flood to your door as your brand presence effortlessly encircled the world to the exclusion of all latecomers. A few years later, we're all more sophisticated and businesses now seem a little happier to credit their customers with a modicum of intelligence. Thus it isn't deemed to be beyond the wit of fans to persevere to oasisinet.com for the band's official website, rather than giving up immediately once oasis.com is found to be a German software consultancy.
However, some people still seem to be seduced by the illusion of a worldwide brand on the cheap or scared by the infinite possibilities for confusion. Madonna, Sting and Julia Roberts have all recently brought complaints before WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organisation) claiming exclusive worldwide rights to their names as .com domain names.
Now EasyGroup plc, the parent company of easyJet and easyrentacar, has been accused of throwing its weight around in an apparent attempt to monopolise all 'easy.com' domain names. Up until now, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the Group's founder and chairman, has been able to position himself as a likeable and trustworthy entrepreneur, a Branson for the 21st century. He comes from a wealthy background but has made his own fortune. He's informal, a man of the people and, apparently, a champion of consumer choice. So what is he up to? Just as the Branson magic seemed to have hit stormy weather with Virgin Trains, has Stelios also lost his touch?
Stelios (as he likes to be known) started with easyJet, a no-frills airline offering a basic service at reasonable prices. Having made his name in the air, and established an ethos on the way, he turned to Internet access (easyeverything.com), car hire (easyrentacar) and now a web-based price-comparison shopping service (easyvalue.com). All come branded in familiar orange-with-white-lettering and all offer the same promise - good value, no extras.
Stelios claims that the Group's success and popularity make it an obvious target for unscrupulous piggybackers. The first complaints were made against Easy Car and easyshop.co.uk (an on-line lingerie site), shortly followed by more companies with similar sounding names. Initially, however, EasyGroup seemed to be on a losing wicket - WIPO turned down its complaints against easy-jet.com (as opposed to easyjet.com), easymaterial.com, easygetaway.com and several others. But this was, as EasyGroup pointed out, merely a strict application of the WIPO rules as to registration in bad faith (and all the cases were decided by the same single arbiter). EasyGroup has now turned its attentions to the English courts and the law of passing off to fight its cause.
This approach may prove more successful. The most important message on domain names to have come from the English courts (the One in a Million case) was as a resounding success for businesses and brand-owners against 'cybersquatters' and trade mark infringers. But EasyGroup will have to tread a careful path - to be seen as overly aggressive might lose it public support and damage the 'cuddly' brand it has spent so much time and money building.
Its opponents are already voicing their grievances on the Internet. At www.easyprotest.com, they have posted a list of complaints of 'bully-boy tactics' by EasyGroup, details of cases decided to date and an offer of free legal advice to anyone receiving a letter from Stelios' lawyers. Hitching themselves to the 'culture-jamming', anti-capitalist bandwagon which has recently rolled through Seattle and Prague, they are hoping to take their case to the court of public opinion.
Such tactics have met with remarkable success lately and Stelios must be careful not to find himself rebranded from hero to villain. The problems seem to have arisen with plans for the recent stockmarket flotation of easyJet. Further flotations are scheduled - easyeverything.com in 2001 - and, perhaps in a bid to consolidate its brand, EasyGroup has been getting more protective of its image and reputation. Maybe we are seeing the inevitable result of an uneasy melding of popular consumerism and big-money capitalism. Stelios will need to handle things shrewdly if he is to appeal to both sides and fit them snugly together.