Network: Toys fight off pirates in the battle of the Web

At first sight, it looks like a storm in a dolls' house. What's so important about a missing `s', in a website name? But this is serious stuff. By Iain Aitch
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The Independent Culture
In the run-up to Christmas, one online retailer seems to have suffered from a festive spirit bypass. eToys, which operates from the etoys.com domain, has taken exception to the activities of its close neighbour etoy.com - home to a group of European electronic artists based in Zurich. But rather than banging on the fire wall and asking it to keep the noise down, eToys has taken etoy to court for dilution and infringement of its trademark as well as unfair competition.

eToys was concerned that careless customers were missing the "s" from the end of its name and ending up in the confusing virtual world of etoy, which, it claims, contained "hateful rhetoric and obscene images", and even "hardcore pornography". etoy claims that the only obscenity on its website was an order on one of the pages to "get the fucking Flash plugin" - visible for a number of weeks before being replaced with a censored version.

"They say that we are domain-name squatters and that we try to increase our profit from their increased holiday traffic," says Zai, of etoy. "If people forget the `s' at the end of eToys, that is not our problem. It's their problem that they didn't pay enough attention to this problem before they built up this huge company."

What at first sight looks like a straightforward case of domain-name piracy by a group of art pranksters is, in fact, far more complex. etoy and its supporters are saying that the company existed for three years before the conception of eToys and had an online presence at etoy.com for two years before the arrival of Etoys.com. eToys registered its trademark in the US first, though, etoy doing so only after hearing that a large company was setting up with a similar name.

A California Superior Court judge granted a preliminary injunction against etoy on 29 November and ordered that etoy.com be closed down. One major factor in the decision was the claim by eToys' legal team that etoy was engaged in illegal stock-trading through its website. This is a claim denied by the artists. They acknowledge that they offer "etoy shares" for sale, but say these are merely pieces of art and in no way could be mistaken for real shares.

"It is not illegal," claims Zai. "They speculate on the idea that the judge is sensitive to those topics. So if he hears the words "investment security fraud", they can say that people buy these shares because they think it is [eToys] stock. They try to make us look like criminals."

If etoy is unable to gain the rights to resurrect its domain through the US courts, then it may well bring a case in Europe. Etoys has recently set up an online branch in the UK that may become the focus of any future legal action, etoy claims.

For the outsider it is sometimes difficult to see what etoy's art consists of. This is largely because the group itself is the product. It acts like a cross between a gang, a cult and a corporation and claims to work from cargo containers that can be moved across continents, allowing it to plug in and go at any location with a power supply. Its most famous work to date has been a "digital hijack" in which it claims to have hijacked more than a million Web surfers. By intensive investigation of the workings of search engines, it managed to place its own Web pages high up in results for common search terms and then redirected users to a page that informed them they had been hijacked. But the group does not fit the image of the subversive hacker that eToys is trying to project; it has received awards at the Ars Electronica festival for electronic art. It has also had official backing in Austria, where the first holder of an etoy share was the chancellor, Victor Klima.

EToys did try to avoid adverse publicity by offering to buy etoy.com before the case came to court. But, even after an offer worth $500,000- plus, etoy still felt that the domain name was essential to the international nature of its work and could not be given up.

eToys, a relative newcomer to the Web, may have bitten off more than it can chew by choosing to pursue etoy. It may seem a small, powerless group of artists but, despite its involvement in fairly harmless media stunts, it can call upon a large community of activists who are willing to take on eToys on the Web. Several new domains such as toywar.com and eviltoy.com have already appeared, to spread the message and garner support for etoy.

Backing has also come from RTMark - another group with a corporate facade, which has made a name by funding sabotage in the workplace for political ends. It recently upset the Republican presidential candidate George Bush Jnr with its gwbush.com site, and the gatt. org site has drawn a broadside from the much-maligned World Trade Organisation. The site was a subversive mirror of the WTO's wto.org website and links led visitors to activists involved in the Seattle protests.

RTMark is now turning its attention to eToys: "We're creating an etoy mutual fund that is very different from our other mutual funds," says a spokesman. "Most of our projects don't target specific companies. But these will all have the purpose of destroying or punishing eToys as a company and making an example of it."

etoy can now be found at http:// 146.228.204.72:8080

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