Monday, August 27, 2012

Marc Lurie/ Wins Reverse Domain Name Hijacking Claim Against AirFX, LLC on Summary Judgment

AirFX,LLC (“Defendant”), the owner of the trademark AirFX, suffered a defeat last week in its attempt to “acquire” (or as some might say “hijack”) the domain name from its current registrant, Marc Lurie (“Lurie” or “Plaintiff” ).   [Note: There were many articles about this dispute last year when the court denied Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss – see herehere, here, and here for a small sampling].

The domain name was originally registered by Bestinfo on March 21, 2003.  In June 2005, Air Systems Engineering, Inc. ("ASE") filed a trademark registration application for the mark AirFX for “motorcycles, vehicle parts, namely, shock absorbers, and suspension systems for motorcycles, bicycles, automobiles, and powered vehicles.”  The mark registered in March 2007.  In April 2011, ASE assigned its trademark rights to a wholly owned subsidiary, Defendant AirFX,LLC.

Lurie originally was involved in operating skydiving wind tunnel businesses under the name "SkyVenture," but later decided to use the name AIRFX in connection with a new line of wind tunnels (despite having found ASE’s application to register AIRFX after conducting a trademark search).  Lurie acquired the from Bestinfo for $2,100 on February 2, 2007, but never posted any content or created a website – and instead has a typical landing page (or “splash page” as defined in the opinion) put up by the registrar,  While the landing page does have links to third party advertisements, Lurie maintained that he drived no revenue from such advertisements (and Defendant never provided any evidence to the contrary).  After leaving SkyVenture, Lurie was bound by a non-compete agreement prohibiting him from developing his own line of wind tunnels until 2010.  However, Lurie never sold any product under the brand AIRFX nor conducted any advertising, marketing, or manufacturing activities.  Lurie also never sold or offered to sell suspension systems for motorcycles, or any other motorcycle-related products.

Defendant contacted Lurie in 2008 regarding the purchase of  While the partie dispute the terms of the offer at that time, no agreement was reached.  In 2011, Defendant filed a domain dispute complaint before the National Arbitration Forum.  On May 16, 2011, the arbitration panel ruled in favor of Defendant and ordered that GoDaddy transfer to Defendant.  See AirFX, LLC v. ATTN AIRFX.COM, Claim Number FA1104001384655 (NAF May 16, 2011)).

Lurie sought relief against the ordered transfer by filing a complaint which included a claim for reverse domain name hijacking under 15 U.S.C. § 1114(2)(D)(v).  Defendant counterclaimed with claims of cybersquatting and trademark infringement.  The parties filed cross motions for summary judgment.  On August 23, 2012, the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona ruled in favor of Lurie by finding as a matter of law that Lurie was not liable for Defendant’s counterclaims of cybersquatting or  trademark infringement, and accordingly, Lurie’s Motion for Summary Judgment on its reverse domain name hijacking claim was granted.  See et al. v. AirFX LLC, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 120285   (D. Ariz. August 23, 2012) (order here).

In deciding Defendant’s cybersquatting claim, the issue centered around the meaning of “registration” (ed.-an issue near and dear to my heart).  The court detailed the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in GoPets Ltd. v. Hise, 657 F.3d 1024, 1030 (9th Cir. 2011) which clarified the meaning of "registration" and found that a party’s re-registration and continued ownership of a domain name that a party had registered long before a trademark owner registered its trademarks does not violate the cybersquatting statute (prior blog post here). 

Defendant attempted to distinguish GoPets because in that case, the original domain name registrant transferred the domain name to an entity that he co-owned.  In contrast, Lurie purchased from an unrelated third party.  Defendant argued that the purpose of the ACPA would be undermined if a cybersquatter who purchases a domain name in bad faith is immune from liability simply because the domain name he purchased existed before a mark was  distinctive.

However, the court found otherwise: 
Nothing in the language of GoPets indicates that it should be read as narrowly as defendant suggests. GoPets did not distinguish between transfers of a domain name to related parties and other kinds of domain name transfers. To the contrary, GoPets broadly reasoned that if an original owner's rights associated with a domain name were lost upon transfer to "another owner," the rights to many domain names would become "effectively inalienable," a result the intention of which was not reflected in either the structure or the text of the ACPA.

In short, the court, following GoPets, found that it was undisputed that was initially registered on March 21, 2003 by Bestinfo, ASE’s first use in commerce of the AirFX mark was June 2005, and Lurie purchased on February 2, 2007 – and thus, Lurie’s registration of in February 2007 "was not a registration within the meaning of § 1125(d)(1)” and because Bestinfo registered long before ASE registered its mark, Lurie’s  registration and ownership of does not violate the cybersquatting statute.  The court granted summary judgment on Defendant’s cybersquatting counterclaim in favor of Lurie. 

As for Defendant’s counterclaim for trademark infringement, the court focused on the fundamental issue of whether Lurie used the mark “in commerce” (noting that “If a person's use of a mark is noncommercial, it does not violate the Lanham Act.”).  Defendant’s sole argument of Lurie’s commercial use centered on particular allegations and admissions.  However, the court found no dispute that Lurie had never sold an AirFX product, have no advertising or marketing activities, have no manufacturing activities, never developed a website for, and never sold any AirFX products or services on such website.  The court further found that Lurie’s limited activity of some pre-sales efforts and preliminary research, viewing such facts in the light most favorable to Defendant, was still insufficient to constitute commercial use of a mark.
Although plaintiffs have developed a brand name, registered a domain name, started  researching the design of their wind tunnels and approached potential investors and  customers, plaintiffs have not sold, manufactured, advertised, or marketed any product  bearing the AirFX mark. Defendant points to no other facts to establish plaintiffs'  commercial use of the AirFX mark.

As such, without raising any genuine issue  of material fact as to whether plaintiffs' use of the mark was commercial, the court found as a matter of law that no commercial use existed and therefore, there could be no trademark infringement as a matter of law and granted summary judgment on Defendant’s trademark infringement counterclaim in favor of Lurie. 

Finally, with respect to Lurie’s claim for reverse domain name hijacking, the only issue was whether Lurie’s registration of the domain name was “not unlawful."
Because we have concluded that plaintiffs cannot be liable under the ACPA for cybersquatting as a matter of law, and because plaintiffs are entitled to summary judgment on the trademark infringement claim, we conclude that there is no genuine issue of fact as to whether plaintiffs' use of the domain name is lawful.

Defendant tried to argue that Lurie should not be entitled to such equitable relief because Lurie “conducted the litigation in unprecedented, and unprofessional ways.” [ed.—there are two sides to every story, and I’m sure Lurie has some stories about the actions of Defendant’s counsel as well].  However, the court noted the clear mandate of 15 U.S.C. § 1114(2)(D)(v), which allows the court to “grant injunctive relief to the domain name registrant, including the reactivation of the domain name or transfer of the domain name to the domain name registrant."  As such, the court ordered that the remain registered with Lurie.

The court’s final words was to note that “[b]oth parties argue that this case is ‘exceptional’ under the Lanham Act, warranting an award of attorneys' fees. We will address a motion for attorneys' fees if and when one is before us.”   Stay tuned . . . 

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