A number of major brand owners are considering legal action after discovering that variants of their trademarks have been registered as .eu domain names and then offered for sale on eBay.
Times Online has discovered that domain names including Rowntrees.eu, Ask-Jeeves.eu and EuroDisneyParis.eu are on sale on the Internet site for more than £20,000.
The listing on eBay for Rowntrees.eu says: "Top level .eu name www.rowntrees.eu for sale. Get your hands on www.rowntrees.eu before anyone else!! This site can generate serious income!!"
Beside the text listing is a scanned photograph of a Rowntrees Fruit Pastels packet, among the brand's best known products.
The eBay advertisement is an example of "cyber squatting", where someone registers a domain name in the knowledge that the term used is a registered trademark of a third party.
A spokesperson for Nestlé, which owns the Rowntrees brand, told Times Online that it is considering its legal position about the sale of Rowntrees.eu on eBay.
Despite being rebranded as Ask.com, the search engine and portal is well-known across the world as Ask Jeeves, which was its brand at launch. The offer of Ask-Jeeves.eu on eBay is therefore a cause for concern for the United States-based company.
Its spokesperson told Times Online: "Despite the fact that we dropped Jeeves from our brand in the UK in February, both AskJeeves and Jeeves, the character, are registered trademarks of Ask.com. Our legal team are examining our options on this case as we speak."
Disneyland Paris has also lost on a number of variants of its trademarks. Although not for sale on eBay, DisneylandParis.eu does not belong to the Disney, but instead it is registered to Goallover, an Internet marketing company based in Islington, London. A variant, EuroDisneyParis.eu is for sale on eBay with a starting price of £150.
A spokesperson for the theme park was surprised to see the domain listed on the auction website. "We've not come across this before. There's no precedent for dealing with people selling varients of our names on auction sites," she said.
She was at pains to draw a distinction between those who legitimately use Disney brands on their websites and those who exploit the goodwill of the multi-national.
"In the case of an amateur fan site, we generally have no problem with someone using our name or associated images, although we do constantly monitor sites that come into this category.
"However, it is a different situation when it comes to sites utilising our brand for commercial purposes. If we believe that the sites in question contravene this, we may take legal action.
"It is important for consumers and for brands like ours to be protected. Disney is a brand that is well-respected and known for quality. If someone is using our brand name to sell an unofficial product or service, this is unacceptable as consumers may be unsatisfied with their purchase and this will ultimately hurt our image."
Robin Caller, who is listed as the registered contact for Goallover, told Times Online that DisneylandParis.eu was registered on behalf of a third-party client, and that aside from confirming that the client was not Disney, he could not disclose their details.
He explained that the address was useful "for search engine optimisation and for traffic generation". He added that he has registered scores of domains on behalf of clients and was aware that "some would clearly lead to trouble", although in this case it was not the client's intention. "If Disney wanted the domain, we'd be more than willing to forward the request to our client," he said
In the view of Mr Caller, the problem lies not with companies like his but with those advising the multinational brand-holders. "Who is advising these companies on their online marketing? Why didn't Disney register its name during the sunrise period instead of waiting for the name to become available to the public during landrush?"
Times Online approached eBay to ask for its position on the sale of these .eu domains, but has not yet received a response.
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