Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Enterprises Limited (Virgin) has succeeded in wresting two confusing Internet domain names from the hands of a consultancy firm which was accused of attempting to ‘blackmail’ the tycoon into granting an exclusive half-hour interview.
The firm had offered to part with the web addresses – virginentrepreneurs.co.uk and virginstartups.co.uk – at cost price, but only if one of its representatives were granted an audience with Sir Richard ‘to pitch his business ideas’. Virgin retorted that ‘30 minutes of Sir Richard Branson’s time is invaluable’ and accused the firm of trying to bring improper pressure to bear.
In directing the firm to hand over the offending domain names to Virgin, an expert appointed by Internet watchdog Nominet found that access to the billionaire businessman was ‘valuable consideration’ and that, by demanding his ear, the firm had effectively sought more for the domain names than it had paid for them.
The firm registered the web addresses in 2011 and argued that that was long before the Virgin group had shown any interest in entrepreneurship and business start-ups. It also insisted that Sir Richard’s business empire did not own a monopoly on the use of the ordinary English word, ‘Virgin’.
However, the expert noted that Virgin had extensive intellectual property rights in its name and found that there was ‘compelling’ circumstantial evidence that the firm had registered the domain names in order to ‘take unfair advantage’ of the high public visibility of the ‘household name’ brand.
The web addresses exploited the association with Virgin and were ‘parasitical’ on the goodwill that had been built up since Sir Richard christened his business in 1970. The expert concluded, “The domain names in the hands of the firm are abusive registrations.”