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Nov. 18, 2006

As Candidates Mull ’08, Web Sites Are Already Running

By STEVE FRIESS

Henry Treftz gets excited each time Barack Obama seems to inch closer to a run for president in 2008. Not, mind you, that Mr. Treftz is a fan of Mr. Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois. He says he would not vote for him if he did run.

But Mr. Treftz, who lives in Aurora, Ill., owns the domain name obama2008.org, and he thinks he will make a tidy profit if Mr. Obama's campaign gets around to wanting it.

As the polls closed in the midterm elections last week, political pundits were proclaiming the start of the 2008 campaign season. But that season began online several years ago.

For example, Brett Maverick of Canberra, Australia, registered hillary2008.com in 1999, when Hillary Rodham Clinton was just beginning her bid to become New York's junior senator. Hours after seeing Mr. Obama, then an Illinois state senator, deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Glenn LaFaye of Floral Park, N.Y., snapped up barackobama2008.com. And rudyforpresident.com was picked up by Robert Steiner of Wantagh, N.Y., eight days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as the popularity of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York surged.

"I got it partly because I'm a supporter of Rudy Giuliani and partly for potential financial gain," said Mr. Steiner, 32, an e-commerce consultant who said he had turned away offers to sell the domain name for more than $1,000 to another speculator and was considering keeping it to develop a political site.

Nearly every conceivable presidential ticket has been registered, including mccaingiuliani2008.com and clintongore2008.com. Even the name hillandbill2008.com is taken.

Registering a domain name is simple and costs about $10 per year. Doing so can save candidates headaches and expenses down the road, and help them avoid Web sites like hillaryforpresident.com, where a screed about the Antichrist is posted, or gwbush.com, which sells "Impeach Bush" bumper stickers.

"Candidates aren't thinking enough in advance," said Michael Bassik of MSHC Partners, which handled Internet strategy for Senator-elect Bob Casey in Pennsylvania and other Democrats. "It's surprising that candidates that have already expressed an interest in 2008 haven't purchased the domains that would be related to it."

The intentions of those who register domains vary. Jon Kurpis, 29, of Saddle River, N.J., who has owned mccain4president.com and domains naming Clinton and Gore for nearly two years, says he plans to give them to the candidates or to at least keep them out of their opponents' hands.

Mr. Maverick, on the other hand, said via an instant message that he hoped to trade hillary2008.com for a job with Mrs. Clinton's campaign or to "sell it to the Democratic Party." Its value? "Something in the order of U.S. $30,000-plus," he said.

That figure may be unrealistic, consultants say, because the value of these domain names rests on the notion that they will generate traffic as people enter the addresses hoping to find a candidate's site.

"This used to be a really big problem in the 1990s before Google when it was really hard to find things on the Internet so people would just guess," said Kari Chisholm of Mandate Media, an Oregon company that handled Internet strategy for Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski's successful re-election campaign this year. "A smart campaign ought to try to grab every one of the obvious permutations, but it's not mission critical."

Senator Obama's press secretary, Tommy Vietor, said the campaign went "through considerable effort" to get barackobama.com, picking it up on the open market when another registrant let it expire. "But people get in on this very early," Mr. Vietor said. "Obama2010.com was bought on June 10, 2004, when we were still trying to win an election. And barackobama2008.com was registered on July 27, 2004. We were a bit busy that day." (Mr. Obama spoke at the national convention that day.)

Experts are split as to whether a campaign can force a registrant to give up a domain name without compensation on the ground that it bears the candidate's name. Eric Sinrod, a lawyer in San Francisco who specializes in Internet law, said rulings by federal courts and by the World Intellectual Property Organization, the United Nations agency that is charged with mediating international intellectual property disputes, had gone both ways.

Last year, Mrs. Clinton's staff wrested hillaryclinton.com from an Italian woman who had registered it in October 2001. An arbitrator at the United Nations agency ruled that Mrs. Clinton had a common law right to the trademark of her own name because of her public activities, even though she had never filed for a trademark. The arbitrator also found that the woman had registered the domain in bad faith with the intent to use Mrs. Clinton's fame to direct traffic to unrelated matters.

But Mr. Sinrod noted that some arbitrators had ruled otherwise and that the more a domain name differs from a candidate's name, the weaker the candidate's case might be.

Christine Jones, a lawyer for GoDaddy.com, one of the largest domain registration services, noted that some uses of domain names could be legitimate free speech.

"Political speech is really tough to make improper," Ms. Jones said. For example, she said, the Obama campaign might seek a domain name and the current registrant will demand payment. "Or he might say, 'Well, this is a great name, and I'm going to put up a pro-Republican Web site on barackobama2008.com.' It's political speech. Is that inappropriate?"

A newly minted ticket may not have the time or the inclination for a court fight over a domain name. Gary Leland of Arlington, Tex., is counting on that for a name he owns, hillandbill2008.com. "I really bought it on a gamble," said Mr. Leland, adding that he got the idea when Dick Morris, the former Clinton adviser, speculated about such a ticket on Fox News last year. "It would be a big payday or a small loss."

But a better investment could be in names used perennially for campaigns on ballot measures. Joel Slatis, 36, of San Jose, Calif., owns yeson52.com and about 150 other names. Mr. Slatis made $8,000 this year renting 16 of them at $500 each to campaigns across the nation.

"They don't need to own them, they just want them for the campaign season," said Mr. Slatis, who expects the names to become a regular source of income.

"This is like owning beachfront property in Hawaii and renting it out to whoever wants to stay there for a season," he said. "But if you own giuliani2008.com and you're not Giuliani, you're just a jerk."

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