German Supreme Court Rules On Domain Name Ethics

Jeff Berg
KARLSRUHE, Germany — The German Supreme Court overruled several lower courts recently, finding that registering generic domain names did not constitute an unethical intent to cause damage.

According to the court, the first-come, first-serve nature of domain registrations does allow the first register an advantage, but domain names made up of generic terms cannot be “grabbed.”

This ruling rejected an earlier charge of “domain grabbing” made by Frankfurt’s Higher Regional Court.

The underlying case revolved around two domains, www.welt-online.de and www.weltonline.de.

Originally registered by a businessman from Kaarst who owns more than 4,000 Internet addresses, their domain ownership came under fire after Axel Spring, Germany’s second-largest magazine publisher and owner of the Die Welt newspaper, discovered the domains had been taken.

Springer won several victories in lower courts, forcing the businessman to avoid using www.welt-online.de in 1999. The businessman relinquished control of the domain, but quickly registered www.weltonline.de, for which Springer sued him again and won in both Frankfurt’s Regional and Higher Regional Courts.

The Supreme Court reversed the lower rulings, finding that, because “welt” means “world” and “world-online” can be used as a generic domain name, it did not constitute an unethical intent to cause damage. The court said that the resulting advantage for the person who registers first is not unethical because domain registrations operate on a first-come, first-serve principle.

The Court’s ruling is consistent with earlier approaches it has taken to domain law.

The case number is I ZR 207/01.