Cyber Squatting – Player’s names as website addresses

Where the WNBA is concerned, the internet has fostered a national, even international, culture of information sharing.

But the ‘net is also a potential gold mine for opportunists.

Several WNBA players have been “cyber-squatted.” That is, someone other than the player owns the right to use their name as a website address.

Anyone can register a name. A search through a registration site reveals if the name is available, and a small fee secures the right to use it as a website address. Many WNBA players’ names are registered by fans.

Utah Starzz Jennifer Azzi knows several fan sites use her name, and it doesn’t bother her at all. “If they’re just fans,” says Azzi, “and that’s something that excites them, fine, I don’t care.”

But when Starzz teammate Natalie Williams wanted to start her own website, the experience was not so benign.

Williams discovered a small company, gambling promotional and marketing opportunities for WNBA players would increase with the growth of the league, had registered NatalieWillams.com (as well as KaraWolters.com and JenniferAzzi.com). Of course, they were willing to release the rights, but for a fee.

Williams can only shake her head at the injustice. “As female athletes, we’re trying to get to the level where men are, and it’s hard enough. When you have people stealing things from you that would help you to improve yourself as a figure in society…that’s not fair.”

So Williams contacted Salt Lake City lawyer Karra Porter. Porter, in turn, prepared a complaint for the World Intellectual Property Organization — an agency authorized to resolve domain name disputes. Her argument was that Williams, Wolters and Azzi had common law trademark rights in their personal name because their names had acquired secondary meaning. In other words, said Porter, “they’re famous in the women’s basketball community.”

The situation was resolved without arbitration, but Porter says it’s not an isolated instance. She found 19 WNBA players, including Lisa Leslie, Nikki McCray, and Yolanda Griffith, have been cyber-squatted by companies, and anticipates the trend to continue.

It’s a future Jennifer Azzi finds distasteful.

“Imagine young high school kids,” Azzi said, “someone taking their name with the intent of making money off of them. That’s just not okay.”

Some have already taken action: Register.com shows some top WNBA draft prospects have already registered their names.

Of course, observes Porter, there may be one upside to being cyber-squatted: “It means you’ve hit the big-time.”

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