Sticks and stones may break bones, but names can hurt the bottom line. As more companies move to the Web, the sad story of a cybersquatter holding a prime address for ransom is becoming all too common. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter and the World Wrestling Federation are just two decidedly different corporations who have had to fight to protect their trademarks. But small companies even ones whose businesses are based on technology can't afford the battle. Vina Technologies, a 120-person, California-based company that sells telecom systems, has had to declare a grudging truce.
"Vina" is the name of an Indian musical instrument, as well as co-founder Josh Soske's hometown in Northern California. "Vina.com," on the other hand, is the name of a Web site that displays five photos of a woman named Cookina, the greeting "Welcome to Cookina's World," and an invitation to e-mail Cookina herself. Despite a series of offers from Vina Technologies and the fact that she hasn't changed the site since 1997, the site's proprietor has refused to budge. In the meantime, Soske and his team have had to work around the problem.
"When we went to register the URL in 1996, Vina.com was already reserved, but there wasn't a Web site there yet. So we took vina-tech.com. Fairly soon after that we got a call from one of our board members telling us that we should check out vina.com. We've approached the current user of the domain name, and have not successfully negotiated any kind of agreement. And I think the current user definitely sees the value of keeping the domain as increasing."
How have you tried to solve the problem?
"We're definitely pursuing a trademark angle. The registration process takes quite some time, but we received our trademark at the end of last year. We have our legal team involved, but I couldn't say that we have any imminent resolution in sight. This seems to be one of those challenges that until it's done, it's not near done."
What have you done in the meantime?
"We've found reasonably good ways to minimize the effect of this on our business. But the key for us, since this has been going on for three years now, is that we've learned to live with the environment while continuing to try to resolve the situation. We have three different addresses that lead to our site vina-tech.com, vinatechnologies.com, and vinatech.com. By taking three, we've lowered the frustration for our customers. With our advertising and business cards, and with articles that are written, we're just very careful to specify our Web address."
Do customers understand your predicament?
"Our customers are used to trying various spelling combinations to find a Web site. The people we sell to seem to be fairly savvy. They know the industry has this problem, and they're creative about trying things. In fact, I was mentoring a group of people starting a business about a year ago, and the approach they took was to register their Web site address before they incorporated. They actually chose their name imtx.com based on a combination of letters no one had used before. As you see more unusual names, you have to wonder where they come from."