Editorial: What's in a Name?

In the case of the Yanomami tribe of the Amazon rain forest, it’s everything. Although this primitive people still rely on their cunning for life’s everyday necessities, just recently, they were taught a harsh lesson about the rules of free enterprise.

It seems that news of Hollywood planning to make a movie based on the Amazonian tribe prompted a Florida woman, Mercedes Meier, to register the URL, www.yanomami.com. When word of this reached one of the tribesman, he claimed that the Yanomami name is not up for sale, and is now in the process of trying to reclaim the Web address for his people to use for future purposes.

Contacted to see if she would donate the site to the Yanomami tribe, Meier declined, and stated in a Reuters story that if the Yanomami tribe is, "thinking of making money on the Internet, then I don’t see why they cannot pay for the name … We live in a commerce world, and that is it." Meier is putting a $25,000 price tag on the site. Interestingly enough, the day the story ran all the site listed was the sentence: "You have reached the future Web site of … yanomami.com."

The next day, that line was replaced with Meier’s two-page statement claiming that she is a conservationist, with published papers on the topic, as well as dedicating seven years of her life to the cause. Oh, and also that she and a friend are in the process of writing a movie script that relates to a crime that happened in the rain forest in 1993. And, the money she would get from selling her site (as well as yanomami.net, which she also owns) would go towards finishing the script, and promoting the film in Hollywood.

Now, not only has the tribe gotten support from the Pro-Yanomami Commission, a non-profit organization, but the commission has enlisted the aid of lawyers and other consultants, and may go to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) for further assistance. WIPO is a United Nations body that arbitrates domain name disputes.

So, who’s to be believed? Surely, the sympathy vote goes to the poor Yanomami tribe, struggling each day in the dreary rain forests of South America; breaking their backs just to survive. But, are the Yanomamis really victims here? After all, aren’t they just as opportunistic as Mercedes Meier? As Ms. Meier puts it, they, too, are looking to profit from the wonders of the World Wide Web. Maybe, the Yanomamis were simply beat to the punch.

So, the question of intellectual property rights remains. Does someone have the right to own another person or group’s name? If you ask Julia Roberts or Madonna, two celebrities who have fought to obtain their domain names, their answer is a resounding "no." In Roberts’ case, the actress was granted the rights to juliaroberts.com, even though the cybersquatter who purchased the domain name still occupies the site. Cybersquatting is the act of registering someone else’s trademark name with hopes of making some fast cashola.

But, in Madonna’s case, the "entrepreneur" who occupies madonna.com claims that Madonna has no more right to the domain name than anyone else with the same name, and has said that he plans to donate the Internet address to the Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Nebraska. Sounds like a nice guy, huh? Actually, this is the same guy who initially used the site to post pornographic material, but has since removed the offensive matter, and replaced it with his stance on the legal case regarding the ownership of his site.

Everyone is in a foot race to register domain names that they believe could soon be worth thousands or even millions of dollars to them. All you need is a little imagination and foresight (and as little as $10 to register the name), and you could be on your way to the easy money.

So, at what point is it morally wrong to steal, sell or barter something that is not yours? If we live in a free, capitalistic society, then shouldn’t the quickest and strongest survive and profit from their ingenuity? Maybe. But, why should the Yanomami have to pay the price?

The answer, for now anyway, is:

Because she got there first.