The Good Thief


Ahem, would the world please direct its attention this way—John Zehr has an announcement. He’s changed his thieving ways, upgraded his mind drive to a higher consciousness. Zehr is, or was, a cybersquatter, which is another way of saying he swipes domain names. About four months ago, he registered 132 domain names with already trademarked brands in their titles, like in the hopes of reselling them for a tidy profit. Now he’s returning the domains, free of charge, to the companies in question.

“After much soul-searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that the companies that own these trademarks should be able to claim them at no cost to them,” states Zehr in a press release. “I’d want that same courtesy if it was MY trademark, after all.”

But what remains to be seen is whether these companies, many of them among the Fortune 500, appreciate, or even know about, Zehr’s generosity. When Zehr contacted Ziff-Davis to return their pilfered domain, his magnanimity was met with “mild bemusement,” he says. “They pretty much saw it as a loose end. It was difficult to even find the right person to talk to.”

Indeed, it’s tough being an angel squatter. “I could spend a lot of time just trying to tell these companies to protect their brands. Corporate marketing departments have really been asleep at the wheel. Why didn’t they get these names for themeslves?”

Drifting through Zehr’s 132 squatted domains, an answer emerges. The makers of the Furby presumably have scant need for It is difficult to imagine what the American Medical Association might do with Nearly all of Zehr’s domain names have “cast” in the title, due to his calculation that companies would rush to beam, or “cast” their wares across the coming broadband. As it turns out, even media firms can live without the word. Fox News, for one, never registered . Why? “That’s something we can just run from our current home page,” explains a company executive. “We’re not into paying people for domains.”

There could be another reason why the suits aren’t shaking in their Bally shoes. Last fall, the Clinton administration created the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. ICANN has shown a markedly antipathetic attitude toward squatter’s rights. Last Friday, the World Intellectual Property Organization ruled that a California stockbroker who had registered the domain name would have to hand the name over to its rightful owner, the WWF.

And Congress, that faithful guardian of the corporate trust, is no more sympathetic to online opportunists. The Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act allows companies to seek up to $100,000 in damages against parties who register domains with the intent of selling them back.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that when pressed, Zehr admits his unique brand of philanthropy has a less than altruistic motive. “Okay, okay, there’s also the legal risk,” he says. “It’s a pipe dream to imagine that ABC would say, ‘Oh please, oh please sell us back,’ before they’d just serve me papers.”

Judge Dread

They say the Internet can’t be tamed, but they never talked to Judge Lewis Kaplan. Last week, Kaplan cracked his whip at a band of hackers, telling them to erase any Web traces of a code known as DeCSS—or else.

This code lets a hacker copy DVDs, the specter of which frightens the motion picture association so much that it sued the clever code smiths in New York last week. Presiding was Judge Kaplan, a man who the defense cast as unfamiliar with the Internet (he needed to be briefed on linking). His preliminary injunction is a rare example of legal futility in action:

“Defendants Shawn C. Reimerdes, Eric Corley a/k/a ‘Emmanuel Goldstein’ and Roman Kazan, their officers, agents, servants, employees and attorneys and all persons in active concert or participation are enjoined and restrained from posting on any Internet website, or in any other way manufacturing, importing, or offering to the public, providing, or otherwise trafficking in DeCSS”—it goes on, but you get the idea.

The next step: These defendants pull their links, but a hundred mirror sites bloom in sympathetic response. And DeCSS becomes more widespread than ever. All of which perhaps proves that when they said you can’t control the Internet, they were right, after all. —Mark Boal