Now that he’s no longer giving speeches on Capitol Hill, Ron Paul’s main platform for spreading his libertarian message is the Web. He’d like for his command center to be RonPaul.com. But right now, that domain name is owned by a cohort of his supporters, who since 2008 have used the address to post Paul-related news.
There is an existential logic behind Paul’s desire to own his eponymous domain. “Everybody knows that RonPaul.com should be Ron Paul,” the former congressman said when TIME spoke with him recently about life after Congress. “It’s your identity.” Yet the owners, including Tim Martin, who via email identifies the group as several expats living in Panama, aren’t ready to hand it over. That means recovering the address won’t be as simple as Paul’s reasoning.
Just ask Bill Clinton, whose attempt to recover williamclinton.com and presidentbillclinton.com failed in 2009. Those websites still redirect to the Republican Party’s homepage. Or ask Michael Bloomberg, whose company failed to take over michaelbloombergsucks.com when the magnate was running for New York City mayor in 2001. Back then, the site pointed to sucks.com, “a place where all people can get together and vent their grievances about Corporate America, American Politics and Politicians.”
One option politicians can use to recover control of their namesake websites is to accuse the owner of cybersquatting, the practice of buying domain names with the intent of selling them back to the “true” owners at inflated prices. That practice was outlawed in 1999, when Clinton signed the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act into law. But going to court is costly, in terms of time and money.
Politicians can also look to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is what Clinton, Bloomberg and Paul all did. ICANN is a nonprofit organization that helps govern the wild digital frontiers of the Internet, and approved arbitrators use its policy to settle disputes. When a politician requests a domain name to be transferred to them or cancelled, they have to prove three things: that the domain name is identical or confusingly similar to a trademark to which they have rights; that the current owner has no rights to the domain name; and that the current owner registered and is using the site in “bad faith.” ICANN’s mediators can’t dole out monetary awards like juries, but using their policy is typically a cheaper, quicker process.
Beyond Sarah Palin, most politicians don’t attempt to register their names as trademarks, partly because most names aren’t unique. Take Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, whose eponymous website redirects to a store in Ireland called Everest Music. It’s run by an Irishman named Paul Ryan. However, public figures like Ron Paul have an additional argument at their disposal, which is that even in the absence of an actual registered trademark, they have “common law” rights to their name. “The words ‘Ron Paul’ have become synonymous with Dr. Paul’s political writings and discourse,” Paul’s lawyers argue in their complaint, filed through the World Intellectual Property Organization. The idea is that because Paul’s name has been used to identify certain goods (like books on liberty), the trademark is there by default.
Both Clinton and Bloomberg passed this first test, successfully proving that they had trademark rights. Bloomberg failed to pass the second, that the current owner has no rights to the name; the National Arbitration Forum ruled that using the domain name to promote free speech, rather than to extort money for instance, was a fair use. Clinton’s attempt failed at the third test, proving “bad faith.” Among many arguments, the former President claimed that an Internet surfer might be duped into thinking he’d defected to the Republican Party. The panel found that unconvincing: simply linking to the GOP’s website didn’t amount to malicious registration.
So how will Paul’s case fair? Attorney Ari Goldberger, who won the case against Bloomberg in 2001, says that Paul’s seven books could help the former congressman establish a common law trademark. The fact that the site links to unofficial merchandise suggests the owners have tried to profit off Paul’s name, Goldberger says. Another point for Paul’s case is his allegation that the owners attempted to sell him RonPaul.com for $848,000, and then for $250,000 before the complaint was filed. On the other hand, RonPaul.com’s owners have long displayed a disclaimer saying the “fan site” is not officially associated with Paul, and they’ve produced nearly five years of posts about liberty and Paul’s sundry campaigns, which makes it hard to argue that they were all about the money from the outset.
Martin says that the owners started to make “a little” money off the merchandise starting in 2010 and that the offer to sell the domain name for $848,000 “was apparently made by the former owner.” He emphasizes that their offer to sell the site for $250,000 included a mailing list of 170,000 Paul supporters. And he says they would have handed over the domain name for free if they felt Paul had shown that “he honors and appreciates our hard work and support.”
The arbitrator is currently weighing all these arguments. In the end, Paul knows he may instead have to make do with a domain like DrRonPaul.com. Having the eponymous domain name “would be helpful,” he says. “But I figure if the name’s the whole thing, then my message isn’t strong enough.”