Trapped in a health net

A domain name dispute rages between a big HMO and a tiny nonprofit that links together third world health-care providers.


Andrew Leonard
November 22, 1999 10:00PM (UTC)

Domain name squabbles are a dime a dozen in the dot-com era, but it's hard to imagine a face-off with juicier WWF-style smackdown potential than the dispute between HealthNet, a huge California HMO, and SatelLife, a tiny nonprofit that links together third world health-care providers.

At dispute is the domain name "healthnet.org." Holly Ladd, executive director of SatelLife, says the nonprofit has been operating an international low-cost e-mail network under the name HealthNet for at least 10 years. In May 1993, SatelLife registered the domain name. Then, three years later, along came HealthNet, the HMO, snapping up "healthnet.com" and "healthnet.net."

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In August, says Ladd, the California HMO sent a letter to SatelLife demanding that it cease using the term "healthnet" and give up the domain name healthnet.org.

"There's really only one issue," says Dan Niccum, vice president of communications and public relations at HealthNet. "Our name is HealthNet -- it is a registered trademark and has been since 1981. The only issue here is that a company is violating a legal trademark."

Niccum says that if SatelLife had done even a cursory trademark search when it first chose the name HealthNet for its e-mail network, the nonprofit would have discovered that the name was already registered.

But Ladd says there was no reason to think that a network aimed at poor third world countries would be confused with a California health insurance organization. "We've spent 10 years doing work on the ground in Africa under the name HealthNet," says Ladd. "They aren't just asking us to change our domain name -- they are asking us to change our entire international identity, and walk away from all the goodwill that we have, and put at risk a huge network of health-care providers over all the world that rely on us."

Ladd says that the HMO would have to demonstrate that the "healthnet.org" domain name is causing "confusion" in the marketplace to win its case. And even though both organizations can broadly be considered as operating in the area of health care, Ladd says that there shouldn't be any confusion.

"Our folks are almost exclusively in Africa, Asia and Latin America," says Ladd. "We are not a health provider or an insurance company, and we don't think that people will be confused. We've offered to put a disclaimer on our Web site, but they are not interested."

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On Nov. 17, SatelLife filed for a "declaratory judgement" in a Massachusetts court. Ladd says that the nonprofit would have preferred some kind of compromise, but that her overtures were "rebuffed."

Niccum says SatelLife is the party refusing to settle.

"We will protect our trademark," says Niccum. "But as far as working with them on the timing of any change, or working with them and assisting them in any name change -- we contacted them in good faith and were rebuked."

Niccum acknowledges that the conflict between his company and a tiny nonprofit that specializes in helping physicians in some of the poorest countries in the globe isn't the ideal public relations scenario for HealthNet. "It doesn't make a good story," says Niccum. "But just because you are a nonprofit doesn't give you the right to violate existing legislation."

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Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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