State v. company: the case of France.com
Nearly all domain names are used for legitimate purposes, without any issues. From time to time, however, legal cases crop up, which raise intriguing questions about the relationship between the global internet and national law. The ongoing dispute about the domain name france.com is a case in point. Can a French court order the seizure of a domain name in the US?
Domain name with a long history
American entrepreneur Jean Noel-Frydman registered france.com in 1994, and went on to use it for marketing tours and excursions to France. His business was very successful, receiving commendations from France's ministry of tourism for promoting the country as a destination for American holidaymakers. At that time, the French government was apparently unconcerned about Frydman's use of the domain name. Over a period of more than twenty-one years, he built a thriving enterprise under the name France.com.
French government intervenes
After twenty years, however, the French state decided that the name France -- and therefore the right to use the domain name france.com -- belonged exclusively to the nation. Legal proceedings against Frydman were accordingly started in France. The basis of the case was that the word 'France' was the French nation's intellectual property, implying that the nation was entitled to france.com as well. The French court accepted that argument, but Frydman contended that the court had no jurisdiction over an American company.
The French government therefore approached Frydman's US registrar, Web.com, asking for the name to be handed over. Web.com complied, and the French configured the domain name to redirect to france.fr. Frydman's business was badly hit, since his website and his e-mail stopped working overnight. His brand and his online business were destroyed at a stroke.
Violation of sovereignty
France's justification was that the registration of france.com by anyone other than the French nation was a violation of its sovereignty. That argument was supported by an earlier case involving the state of Iceland and the British supermarket chain ICELAND Food. The retailer had successfully registered 'Iceland' as a trading name, thus frustrating the state of Iceland's attempts to promote the country worldwide. The courts ultimately decided that ICELAND Food could not assert any right to the English version of a state's name. In other cases, however, courts have ruled that the use of a country's name is permissible, since an enterprise has to be free to make reference to a country in the course of its legitimate operations. So, for example, the state of Monaco could not claim an exclusive right to use the name 'Monaco' for commercial purposes.
French court out of step
In other words, an enterprise cannot claim a country's name for itself, but a country cannot forbid all use of its name by others. The French court's ruling appears inconsistent with the latter principle. It will therefore be interesting to see whether the French view is upheld by the US courts, to which Frydman has turned for redress.
Thousands of domain names
Regardless of the legal niceties, the wisdom of the French government's approach seems questionable at a more general level. Frydman's company was using the name 'France' in a way that was advantageous to the French nation. Indeed, the French court's ruling acknowledged that the French state had suffered no damages as a result of Frydman's activities. Taking legal action against a legitimate business like Frydman's is liable to deter others from activities that actually serve to promote the country. In the .nl zone alone, there are thousands of domain names that contain the word 'France' or its Dutch equivalent 'Frankrijk'. Travel agencies, holiday accommodation providers and wine sellers are just some of those that trade on an association with the country. Is it really in the French nation's interest to make such businesses worry about the continuity of their websites and trading names?
CENTR has published an interesting and useful guide to the case of France.com, which is available to download from the CENTR website.