This article analyzes UDRP decisions in favor of the respondent domain owner in 2016. What factors sunk complainants and what fact patterns favored respondents?
The data was manually coded from the National Arbitration Forum (“NAF”) searchable case database, and taken from the aggregate reporting provided by the World Intellectual Property Organization (“WIPO”).
Both organizations have strikingly similar outcomes: roughly 90% of complaints succeeded in UDRP claims. Of those, a bit more than two percent of the WIPO decisions took the baffling step of canceling the domain name instead of seeking its transfer, putting the domains back in the general registration pool, where the complainant has no better chance than anyone else of getting the domain name. The one strategic reason to file for cancellation may be where the domain name included marks from both the complainant and a third party, where the complainant may not be able to secure transfer.
Outcome summaries are presented below in a table and as a pie chart.
Since the overall outcomes are so similar and time is not unlimited, we focused only on NAF results for a more detailed breakdown.
We analyzed each victory for a respondent based on the grounds cited by the UDRP panel. Many decisions had more than one ground cited, so the total count of issues exceeded the raw number of decisions. There were some clear patterns in the results, reviewed below.
The Complainant Lost a Prior UDRP or Court Proceeding
Complainants always lost where there was res judicata applied. It would seem self-evident that a prior loss in a UDRP proceeding or domain-related litigation would preclude winning a UDRP in the future, since the UDRP is primarily focused on the rights of the complainant and conduct of the respondent at the time of registration. Several complainants tried anyway and predictably failed.
The Complainant Does Not Have Priority
This was the second clear loser for complainants and was much more common than res judicata. Even though the UDRP requires evidence of bad faith registration and use to prevail, about 25% of the losing complainants filed complaints where the domain owner acquired the domain name in question before the complainant had trademark rights. UDRP decisions uniformly hold that registration in these circumstances cannot be in bad faith (even if use can) and also generally hold that the respondent has rights or legitimate interests in the domain name.
The typical fact pattern involved the complainant trying to capture the .com domain name corresponding to the mark where the domain name was registered before the complainant adopted or first sought to register its mark. The complainants quite reasonably want to get the domain name, often attempting (unsuccessfully) to purchase it from the owner, and then quite unreasonably used a UDRP proceeding to attempt to get their hands on it. Of course, the registration could not have been in “bad faith” where the complainant had no rights at the time of registration! This fact pattern is most likely to lead not only to a quick and firm rejection of the complainant’s claims, but also to a “reverse domain name hijacking” finding by the UDRP panel.
Where the domain name was registered prior to the complainant’s first trademark rights, but has been used in bad faith since (e.g. for pay-per-click ads for competitive goods or the like), the UDRP is just not the right tool. Complainants would have a perfectly good ACPA claim on the same facts. Whether these complainants were unaware of the differences in the claim or simply wanted to avoid the cost of federal court litigation is not clear, but filing a lawsuit isn’t wildly more expensive than filing a UDRP, and it’s easy to leverage a clearly winning ACPA claim into a quick settlement, where filing a clear-loser UDRP complaint is little better than burning money.
The Complainant Did Not Adequately Pleading (or Did Not Have) Common-Law Rights
Poorly-supported claims of common-law rights were another common loser, totaling roughly 20% of the UDRP losses by complainants. The typical fact pattern was a small or new business, or an individual claiming trademark rights in their name – often filing the complaint without a representative – filing a complaint that provided little more than a business name registration or a Facebook page as evidence of common-law rights. Many of these complaints, like those in the “priority” section above, sought to take high-value domain names, often those consisting solely of a combination of generic terms. To be clear, common-law claims in general were not problematic for complainants: common-law complaints backed by significant evidence of sales, advertising expenditures, and public recognition like press coverage had no more issues than registration-based complaints in providing rights under 4(a)(i).
The Complaint Targeted a Criticism Site
Complainants have largely figured out that the UDRP is not a great tool for trying to shut down critical sites that are not actively trying to confuse visitors. While complainants occasionally prevail – there is a bit of a split in the UDRP case law on the point – 5% of losses still related to criticism sites.
The Complaint Used the UDRP to Address a Business Dispute
About 15% of disputes failed because they fell outside the scope of the UDRP. Most were situations where the parties had some relationship, e.g. a former employee or officer of the complainant registered the domain name in their name while working for the complainant, and the complainant tried to use a UDRP claim to get it back. Panels tend to reject these claims as fundamentally contract or agency questions rather than questions within the scope of the UDRP.
The Complaint Addressed a Reseller
About 5% of the failed claims related to resellers, where the panel found that, between the nature of the domain name and the site, the registrant was attempting to operate a legitimate and non-confusing resale operation.
About 10% of complaints also foundered on the “rights or legitimate interests” inquiry (largely cases where the complainant ran a site that was not competitive with the trademark owner’s business) or “bad faith” inquiry (generally where an offer to sell in response to a purchase inquiry from the domain owner was used as the sole proof of bad faith, and wasn’t enough, by itself, to show the registrant’s initial bad intent). Five of these involved successful claims that the registrant simply registered generic English terms that happened to match the complainant’s trademark, which was a generic English term for some goods but was used for unrelated goods. These defenses were most successful when the respondent had a huge portfolio of such domains, and didn’t appear to be targeting the complainant’s business (or the marks of other brand owners) in other ways. Interestingly, the respondent prevailed in a couple of proceedings even though an automated pay-per-click ad service put up ads competitive with the complainant; the panels refused to impute bad faith registration even though there was evidence of bad faith use. Those decisions were a bit of a departure from the norm.
A handful of proceedings were lost on other formalities grounds, most often where a complaint related to a domain name that included the marks of two companies, only one of whom was a party to the proceeding.
We hope this was a useful double-check for UDRP complainants prior to filing, and a useful guide to analyzing potential claim weaknesses for respondents in domain name dispute proceedings.