American U. students win fight over Web site domain name

WASHINGTON, D.C. — American University President Benjamin Ladner’s claim that a former student’s Web site trades on the “goodwill” of his name was denied by an Internet arbitration forum because his name does not constitute a trademark, according to the decision.

A three-person panel with the National Arbitration Forum found on Oct. 13 that, registered by former American University student Ben Wetmore, was not registered — nor being used — in bad faith. The panel also ruled that Ladner has no claim to the domain name and that it would remain registered with the student.

The 3-year-old site serves as a source of criticism of and information pertaining to the university.

The panelists rejected Ladner’s statement that his name “has become a famous and distinctive mark within the field of educational services,” the decision stated.

Ladner filed his complaint in July with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a non-profit domain name mediation group. He argued that Wetmore was exploiting his namesake for commercial purposes, though the decision found that the site was non-commercial.

The panel noted that while Ladner is a known educator with published works, his name is not a protected trademark.

Wetmore said that since the decision is not a legal ruling, the university could still pursue court action. So far, he said, he is not aware of any plans to do so.

“I heard through the grapevine that they are pursuing other options and seeing what those options are,” he said. “I would not be surprised if he pursues [the case] in another venue.”

If the case were to go to trial, Wetmore would find the financial means to stay in the fight, he said.

“I don’t know that I could afford it, but if [Ladner] sues me in court, I’ll do what it takes,” he said. “I am not really keen on being pushed around, especially on something I know I’m in the right on.”

David Taylor, Ladner’s chief of staff, said no decision has been made on whether to pursue further action.

“Through time [the site] continues to serve as a confusion point,” Taylor said. “The very simple issue that we are dealing with is that it is confusing and misleading.”

Taylor said the problem is not content-based; the university would seek a domain name change even if the site were complimentary of Ladner.

“If [the site] had another name, we wouldn’t be having these problems,” he said.

The incident has bred what Wetmore describes as a culture of fear on campus. Students and faculty will express support under the table but not publicly, he said.

Currently, Wetmore does not participate in the day-to-day maintenance of the site but said he still is the publisher. Editor in Chief Jeff Behrens supervises operations.

“Our mission remains the same,” Behrens said in an e-mail. “We still strive to inform; we still serve as a critical or investigative eye for American University.”