Community activist hopes to raise money, awareness through domain hijacking
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Community activist Kathy Wray Coleman owns the Internet domain names of more than a third of the Cleveland City Council -- much to the aggravation of council members, who learned in an email this week that their online identities had been hijacked and are being held ransom for $200 a piece.
The activist, who is best known for raising awareness of violence against black women in the wake of Cleveland serial killer Anthony Sowell, says she simply has discovered a new way to fund her causes by capitalizing on the name recognition of dozens of local politicians, organizations and major projects.
In the past several months, Coleman has bought the online domain names of City Council members Mamie Mitchell, T.J. Dow, Phyllis Cleveland, Tony Brancatelli, Michael Polensek, Dona Brady and Kevin Conwell, as well as those belonging to County Council members C. Ellen Connally, and Yvonne Conwell, who is Kevin Conwell's wife.
Coleman said she will give Mitchell her domain name free of charge to thank her for supporting Coleman's causes, and the Conwells can have theirs at a special discount if bought together.
But the rest of them have a choice -- stand up alongside her group of activists or pay up.
City Councilman Tony Brancatelli said that if Coleman thinks he's going to pay her $200 for his domain name she should look into buying "www.tonygoodluckwiththat.com."
He said when it comes time to campaign for re-election, he will build his own website using an abbreviated version of his name that's easy to remember and spell.
Coleman says she has only solicited a couple of council members to "test the waters" and has had no takers so far.
But the activist says she has spent nearly $600 on acquiring about 100 domain names, for which she hopes at least a few potential customers would be willing to pay handsomely.
"A lot of people don't think about how valuable their domain name could be to them or their political campaigns," Coleman said in a recent interview.
"They didn't know how important they were until I told them," she said, laughing.
Coleman, who calls herself a "domainer," said she stumbled upon the idea when she lapsed on renewing her own blog page and someone else bought it, she believes, to muffle her activism. She researched the domaining concept and drew the conclusion that as long as she kept her distance from powerful trademarks the law would be on her side, she said.
In addition to those of City and County Councils, Coleman has managed to snag domain names that she thinks could be worth as much as $20,000, including those of NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and several linked to the name of President Barack Obama and the 2012 presidential race.
She took a chance and invested in obamagingrich2012.com and ilovenewtgingrich.com, but she acknowledged that she probably will have to take a hit on those.
Coleman owns clevelandmayorfrankjackson.com. and tried to buy frankjackson.com, too. But records show that domain is owned by a car dealership in Texas.
Perhaps most controversial, however, is her ownership of cleveland-horseshoe-casino.com and other domain names related to the anticipated downtown casino, a collaboration between Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert's Rock Gaming LLC and Caesars Entertainment.
Caesars has licensed Horseshoe with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. And a Caesars spokesman said this week that the company has sent Coleman a letter ordering her to release her registration of any domains that use the words Horseshoe Casino.
Coleman said she would be happy to negotiate a fair price for the domain names -- or she is open to an alternative arrangement in which Caesars would hire her to help market the casino using the websites she owns.
"These corporate entities will be making a lot of money to the detriment of the black community," Coleman said. "What's wrong with the community getting a piece of the pie? We would use some of the funds to enhance our grassroots organizations. This isn't about taking advantage, it's about raising funds for the betterment of the community."
But whether the money profits Coleman or her causes is beside the point, said Josh Ryland, an intellectual property attorney with the Cleveland-based law firm Renner, Otto, Boisselle & Sklar.
Companies whose trademarks have been commandeered by cybersquatters can take action either by challenging the use of the domain name in an arbitration process handled by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers or by filing a federal lawsuit under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, Ryland said.
Either way, the trademark owner must prove that the domain squatter has no legitimate interest in the domain and is using it in bad faith -- such as to profit from its sale. That's easy to prove if the domain owner has posted no content demonstrating a fair use of the site, Ryland said.
For corporations with deep pockets, a federal lawsuit might be the solution. But for individuals trying to wrangle their domain names free from the grips of cybersquatters, they might be better off just paying the asking price, Ryland said.
Still, domaining can be risky business, especially when dealing in variations of trademarked names, he said.
"There certainly are people who make their living this way," Ryland said. "But there are people who make their living as contract killers, too. It doesn't mean that they're right."
Coleman maintains that her new business stands on firm legal ground.
"I wouldn't take a domain name that was not allowed," she said. "These were bought in good faith. And the council and casino people should have thought to buy them first. Now I own them. You can't bully someone because they outsmarted you on domain names."
City Councilman Michael Polensek said Coleman won't recruit him as a customer.
"As a kid growing up in Collinwood, I know that's called a shakedown," Polensek said. "I didn't buy it when I was a kid, and I don't buy it now. I think it's ridiculous. I'm not interested in being extorted by anyone."
Polensek said he rarely uses the Internet to campaign because many Cleveland voters do not receive their information online. Neither is he technologically savvy enough even to care about his domain name, Polensek said.
"I'm a dinosaur when it comes to technology," he said. "When the solar flares break down our technology, Polensek and the Amish will survive."
[Via - Cleveland.com]
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