Ask a thousand people on the street to tell you the first person they think of when they hear the name “Madonna,” and you’re likely to get a pretty overwhelming response in favor of the bump-and-grind pop singer. At least that’s the claim of her publicist.
But does that give Madonna the Singer the right to own the domain name “Madonna.com”? Not by a long shot. Her efforts to wrest it out of the hands of the person who currently uses the site to keep the world up-to-date on his battle with her — a departure from its original use as a pornography clearinghouse — may end in victory.
She may win because she’s the richest Madonna as well as one of the most famous. But that won’t make her right.
At first blush (no innuendo intended), Madonna the Singer’s crusade appears to be cut and dried. A simple matter of good versus evil. The pop star who spent the better part of 15 years building her image is squaring off against Dan Parisi, a New Jersey businessman who grabbed the domain name before she thought of it, and for the better part of two years, used it as a stopping point en route to his pornography kingdom.
An open and shut case? Not exactly. Unlike the host of copyright-and trademark-infringement battles that have sent cyber-squatters packing in the past, this one isn’t so simple. Madonna, is, after all, named after someone else.
If Madonna the Singer can lay claim to the name, why can’t everyone else who is associated with it? Why not the Roman Catholic church, for example, whose foundation is built on the belief that the Virgin Mary gave birth to the son of God? Why not the long lost relatives of Raphael, who painted “Madonna of the Chair,” or the distant cousins of Andrea of Assisi (also known as “The Genius”), who painted “Madonna with Child” in the 1400s?
The answer is simple: because none of them bought and registered the name. Now, there is a very, very good chance that Parisi registered “Madonna.com” knowing that it would draw hits simply because of its association with the singer. I know, because it happened with my wife.
Unable to remember the name of Madonna’s first child (It’s Lourdes, by the way, and in case you’re wondering, the domain name belongs to a Catholic hospital outside Syracuse, New York), she typed “Madonna.com” into the browser. She was, ahem, mildly surprised by the results.
But that’s beside the point. In order to win the right to own the domain name, Madonna the Singer will have to prove that Parisi registered it in bad faith — that is, with the intention of piggybacking on Madonna the Singer’s fame, if not stealing a slice of it outright.
Parisi is attempting to render that argument irrelevant by offering the domain name gratis to a hospital in Nebraska. What a nice guy. But there are strings attached to that apparent act of good will. Parisi wants the hospital to guarantee it won’t sell the name to Madonna the Singer. The hospital is cool toward the offer, worried over possible lawsuits should it accept the name under any conditions. (Wouldn’t this make a great public relations case study?)
In an apparent bid to waste the time and energy of as many people as possible, Madonna has decided to take her case to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which is the intellectual dispute wing of the United Nations.
WIPO has booted squatters before, but only in cases where the name in question could only belong to one person. For instance, the organization refused to evict a man who registered “Sting.com” because the dictionary turned up more than one meaning of the word.
Which is exactly the case with Madonna. What if that poll the singer’s publicist talked about were conducted on the streets of Vatican City? Or in the devout rural areas of Portugal where the original Madonna supposedly made visitations of her own? Or what if it were distributed to a group of Renaissance art scholars?
I’m hoping WIPO has better things to do than listen to Madonna the Singer whine about having her identity stolen. And I’m hoping the group will take all the facts into account if it does consider the matter.
After all, it was way back in 1998 that Parisi bought the domain name. 1998. If Madonna the Singer’s advisors are that flat-footed, she doesn’t deserve any domain name at all — though there are still plenty of good ones left out there, including “madonnathesinger.com.”