France Seizes France.Com
A Frenchman living in America is suing France over France’s recent seizure of the Internet domain that he previously owned: France.com. This dispute is distinctive in the fact that it is not the stereotypical case of brand owner versus domain cybersquatter. Instead, the seizure of this domain from an American citizen by a foreign power raises interesting questions about eminent domain in the realm of intellectual property as opposed to real property as well as jurisdictional questions over venue and governing power.
The dispute at hand began when Jean-Noel Frydman registered the domain France.com in 1994. According to his complaint, Frydman ran the domain without issue for twenty years. The website and domain focused on French wares and other goods and services that Francophiles and Francophones in the United States appreciated. Frydman even notes that he had often collaborated with numerous official French agencies, including but not limited to, the Consulate General in Los Angeles and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in maintaining the website.
Yet, years after letting Frydman own the domain without issue, the very same Ministry of Foreign Affairs that Frydman had once collaborated with decided to file a lawsuit against Frydman in 2015, claiming that Frydman did not have legitimate rights in the domain and that his ownership of the domain violated French law. In 2017, the Paris Court of Appeals sided with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and ruled that Frydman’s use of France.com violated French trademark law. Based on this ruling, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote to Web.com, the domain registrar, and demanded that the domain be handed over to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Upon receiving the complaint, Web.com immediately froze the domain to investigate while the dispute escalated even further as the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard Law School intervened on Frydman’s behalf.
Despite Frydman’s best attempts, however, Web.com ended up deciding to comply with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ request and ultimately transferred ownership of the domain from Frydman to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
What further complicates the dispute, however, is the fact that Frydman complains that Web.com transferred the domain without providing him with any formal notification nor compensation. In his complaint, Frydman noted that he had been one of Web.com’s longest standing customers with a tenure of twenty-four years and should have been entitled to formal notice and compensation for loss of business. Frydman has filed his complaints in Virginia, accusing France of both cybersquatting and reverse domain-name hijacking.
While it is unclear if Frydman will be even able to get the court to successfully exercise jurisdiction over the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it would behoove intellectual property counsel and clients alike to follow the developments of this case as it will provide guidance regarding the seizure of domains and other virtual property by foreign powers.
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