LONDON (08/04/2000) - America was given another chance to gasp collectively about the Internet in May, when 18-year-old Katie Tarbox published her gripping account, Katie.com, of being molested five years ago by a pedophile she met in a chat room. But for one Internet entrepreneur who actually owns the domain name www.katie.com, the book brought a flood of unwanted attention.
Londoner Katie Jones, 28, has owned Katie.com since 1996, and thanks to Tarbox's book, she has been on the receiving end of worldwide sympathy in a 21st century case of mistaken identity.
"The book was about a very upsetting subject, and generally speaking, [Katie.com] was a personal Web site," Jones said. "People are reading the book and sending me e-mail, expecting me to be the victim." The book describes in graphic detail how Tarbox met a 41-year-old serial sex offender in an Internet chat room and later met up with him in a Texas hotel room, where he molested her. Jones said one of the more disturbing aspects of recent events is that other victims e-mail her the stories of their own experiences, unsolicited. The traffic on her site grew with book's publicity, as Katie.com won accolades in publications from People to the New York Times, and Tarbox appeared on the likes of NBC's "Today Show."
What makes it even worse for Jones is that she actually does run a chat business. Having her own chat site, UKchat.com, associated even tangentially with stories of online pedophilia is clearly not good for business. (She is also the former manager of America Online Inc.'s and MSN's online chat services in Britain.) Her personal Web site at Katie.com, which she took down soon after the book's publicity skyrocketed, had contained links to her resume and to the Web site UKChat.com.
"Lots of people know me as Katie Jones, online community person, and I'm known in this industry as the person who owns and runs UK Chat. Now the domain name is always going to be associated with this book," she said. "It's not mine anymore, it's theirs, and they didn't even ask me if they could have it." Jones said Penguin made no attempt to purchase the domain, and when her lawyers approached them, she was told she had no legal foundation for her claim of invasion of privacy.
Jones, through her lawyer, contacted the book's publishers to inform them of her prior right to the name "Katie.com," but says the only response was a stiff reply insisting that she had no legal case. At the moment, she is contemplating further legal action but wonders how much it may cost her win the case. Penguin is apparently unwilling to make any concession on the book's title.
This isn't the first time that two parties have squabbled over a domain name, but Jones' case is unique in one aspect. Countless cybersquatters have registered domain names of large companies and tried to extort large fees from the companies in exchange for relinquishing the names. A whole body of law now addresses the rights of companies to extend their trademark to Web addresses.
But no one has yet tested the right of Web address owners to extend their trademarks to other offline media.
In November 1999, the U.S. Congress passed the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, which gave companies recourse against misuse of their trademarks in Internet domain names. It expanded previous trademark law in the United States, giving better protection against domain name piracy. The trouble for Katie Jones? For starters, Britain doesn't have the same expanded protection against cybersquatters, and her use of Katie.com isn't a trademark, but is for personal use. She's fighting Penguin on the grounds that her privacy has been invaded, rather than trademark infringement.
"It's a gray area of the law. This is a test case," she says. "You don't want to be a test case. It's a horrible thing, but this is an issue that needs addressing."
Lawyers specializing in Internet law say that while Penguin's move may not have been illegal under current law, it was certainly clumsy. There's a certain naivete in publishing a book about the Internet, with a Web address in the title, publicizing the book online (from the Web site www.KatieT.com), and making no attempt to buy or secure the logical domain name.
"Why would naming the book KatieT.com devalue it in any way?" Jones asks.
Penguin didn't respond to requests for comment, but it appears the publishing company may have had an inkling that the book's readers might turn to the Internet for more detail. In early publicity, Tarbox's autobiographical account was promoted as Girl.com, but the book finally appeared under a different name.
The Web site at www.girl.com features hardcore porn.