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U of M cries foul after company buys Web addresses

Associated Press

BURNSVILLE, Minn. -- Several universities are protesting the purchase by a local company of Web addresses that include the names of the schools and their mascots.

For example, Web surfers who go to www.uofmgophers.com will not find themselves at a site maintained by the University of Minnesota.

Instead, it's a site owned by BDC Capital Inc. of Burnville, which has bought more than 23,000 Web addresses. Most of them refer to the names of college or high school teams.

"There is a legal issue with regards to using our name and our trademark," said Mark Rotenberg, general counsel at the University of Minnesota. "Our more serious concern is if any commercial use is being made of that."

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BDC spokesman Tony Carideo said the University of Minnesota isn't the only institution upset at his company. About 10 schools have sent cease-and-desist orders, he said.

However, "BDC doesn't believe it has infringed on any trademarks, these names are part of the public domain," Carideo said. "The company believes that these sites represent a significant asset to both BDC and the schools ... there would be a partnership."

He said the company plans to become partners with the schools, selling souvenirs from cup holders to sweat shirts.

Trademark law experts had different opinions on whether the company had violated the trademark rights of the schools.

"One issue is how the domain name reads. ... If each one of the domain names is confusingly similar (to a brand), then it would be a trademark issue," said Kenneth Port, trademark law author and professor at William Mitchell College of Law.

He also said "there's no such thing as involuntary partnering."

Chris Laru, a Minneapolis attorney specializing in trademark and Internet domain name law, said the trademark depends on the content the company posts on the Web sites.

"If they partner with educational institutions, I don't think it would be a violation," he said. "There would be a potential violation if they acquired the domain name and tried to sell that back ... it would be too close for comfort."

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While the University of Minnesota is keeping an eye on what DBC posts, other universities have already acted.

"They're using it without our permission and in a way that reasonable people would be confused about," said Marvin Krislov, general counsel at the University of Michigan, which has sent a cease-and-desist letter.

"This is a pretty clear violation of trademark. There is only one University of Michigan and only one University of Michigan mascot. Universityofmichiganwolverines.com -- Gosh, it's hard to be more explicit than that."

Stanford University plans to send a similar letter over BDC's purchase of www.stanforduniversitycardinals.com.

"It's to protect the trademark and to avoid any confusion on the part of consumers," said Patrick Dunkley, general counsel. "It's my understanding that BDC intends to use these domain names for merchandising college apparel, so there's a real likelihood that anyone visiting their Web site will think it's endorsed or affiliated with Stanford University."

On Saturday, the Web addresses that included the names of the schools and their mascots directed users to site, www.goschools.com, that included a disclaimer, "GoSchools.com is not affiliated with any University, College or High School. All other trademarks are held by their respective holders.

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