Labour accused of online "dirty tricks campaign"

United Kingdom

An outraged spokesman for the Conservative Party has accused Labour of preparing an online "desperate dirty tricks campaign". Michael Fabricant was opining in relation to the Labour Party's registration of three domain names containing the name of the opposition leader, Michael Howard. A Whois search for 'michaelhowardmp.org', 'michaelhowardmp.net' and 'michaelhowardmp.org.uk' lists the Labour Party as the registrant of all three names.

If Howard believes that the domain names were registered abusively, he could bring a complaint under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP). While personal names are not protected per se, they may still meet the criteria required to bring a complaint. A complainant must establish that:

  • the registrant's domain name is identical or confusingly similar to a trademark in which the complainant has rights;

  • the registrant has no legitimate interest in respect of the domain name; and

  • the domain name has been registered and is being used in bad faith.

In relation to the first requirement, a complainant may rely on an unregistered trademark arising out of use of a personal name in commerce. However, in 2003 Artur Mas, a candidate of a Spanish political party, failed to persuade a panel that he had an unregistered trademark in his name and was thus entitled to the transfer of 'arturmas.tv'. While the panel acknowledged the widespread use of the name 'Artur Mas' in a political context, it found no evidence of use of the name for commercial purposes, particularly in relation to any identified goods or services. It is possible however, that Howard would not fall at this hurdle given the more generous approach of common law countries to unregistered trademarks than the commercial notoriety required under the strict Spanish trademark law.

The second and third requirements would pose less of an obstacle to a complaint by Howard. A lack of legitimate interest and bad faith could be inferred from the Labour Party's registration of the opposition leader's name in circumstances that do not suggest any legitimate interest or good faith. It remains to be seen whether any action will be taken over the registrations, although the UDRP is not designed to act as a weapon for curbing freedom of speech.

A Labour Party spokesman is reported to have cited another similar site, 'michaelhowardscv.com', as an example of the purpose for which the domain names had been registered. It parodies the Tory leader's curriculum vitae, drawing attention to his less successful political moments. Interestingly, a website at 'tonyblair.org' displays a series of Conservative Party posters - upon enquiry, the registrant stated that the site was maintained by him in a personal capacity. One wonders whether this example of cybersquatting would receive quite such vehement objections from the Conservative Party.

Daniel Lowen, Bird & Bird, London

The author wishes to make clear that the views expressed in this article are his own and not necessarily those of Bird & Bird.

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