Two weeks ago I began to receive e-mail alerting me to what the writers said was a gross injustice -- the crushing of a small businessman by a heartless giant corporation. At first I paid little attention -- the issue at hand was an Internet domain name dispute, and I just couldn't be bothered. I covered my first such squabble eight years ago, when Wired magazine was bullying a startup named Women's Wire. By 2002, anything to do with domain names induces an immediate coma-like sensation in me. Enough, already.
But as the letters relentlessly poured in at the rate of several an hour, I found myself, willy-nilly, becoming intrigued. Clearly, there was an organized campaign going on, although it wasn't the most airtight effort I'd ever seen. A hefty portion of letter-writers had somehow mistaken me for the multinational corporation, and expressed some hurtful sentiments. Another large contingent accused me of squelching news coverage out of fear of alienating potential advertisers, which is not a tactic I would recommend for getting a journalist on your side.
But never mind all that. As domain-name disputes go, this one was a doozy, with the e-mail campaign adding a noteworthy twist.
The basic facts are typical of such disputes. Nissan Motors, the Japanese car manufacturer, is suing Uzi Nissan, the current owner of nissan.com, for $10 million. Uzi Nissan is an Israeli immigrant to the United States who has been doing business in North Carolina under his own name for 20 years. He registered nissan.com back in 1994, as a home page for his company Nissan Computer Co., which he founded in 1991.
Nissan Motors may have missed the boat on the Internet back in 1994, but by 2002 they've caught up. The legal battle has been brutal, according to Uzi Nissan, who is convinced that Nissan Motors is determined to bankrupt him utterly.
"They've ruined my business and my marriage," says Nissan, who claims to have spent $2.2 million fighting the lawsuit. "They've ruined every aspect of my life."
Nissan Motors has charged in court that Uzi Nissan is a cybersquatter, a speculator intent on cashing in on Nissan Motors' brand. So far Nissan Motors has lost on this point, although the company has had some success in its related claim that Nissan Computer Co. is infringing on Nissan Motors' business by directing traffic to automotive-related advertisers. A jury trial is scheduled for October.
But Uzi Nissan has not been content to rely on the courts. He's also tried to make his case a cause célèbre, and, fittingly enough, he's taken advantage of the Net to do so. At ncchelp.org, supporters of Uzi Nissan can contribute e-mails that are automatically forwarded to a list of media professionals -- as I've been finding out for the last couple of weeks.
I even tested the automatic e-mail function myself, sending a note declaring "This is an outrage!" that arrived in my own mailbox within seconds.
I received some interesting e-mail responses to my mail. "Nightline" for example, sent me a very polite automated note:
"Thank you for your story idea submission concerning the Nissan.com domain name lawsuit. As we receive many story ideas every day, it is often difficult to respond directly to every concern. Yet all hope is not lost! Have you ever thought about appealing to local and national advocacy/lobbying groups? They may be better suited to help you with your dilemma. Also, try contacting the local ABC affiliate in your area. They may be able to bring the right publicity to your issue and help a great deal. However, we will forward your submission on to our producers for a possible Nightline broadcast."
Others were less courteous. One journalist simply asked curtly to be removed from the mailing list. Another went so far as to threaten legal action if the e-mail barrage did not cease.
Uzi Nissan may not be a cybersquatter, according to a judge, but to some media personalities, he appears to be something even worse -- a spammer.
But is it spam when you're fighting as a lonely small-businessman David against a transnational Goliath? Or is it simply war by any means necessary? One man's spam may be another person's freedom fight.
One thing appears clear: Uzi Nissan is no cybersquatter. One of the more compelling pieces of evidence on his Web site is a photocopy of a 1982 invoice for a car antenna from a Datsun dealership, made out to Uzi Nissan's auto-repair business, Nissan Foreign Car. Today, Datsun is known as Nissan, but that wasn't the case at the time. The only mention of the word "Nissan" on the invoice is in the reference to Uzi Nissan's company.
As for the second point, as to whether Uzi Nissan is infringing on Nissan Motor business via nissan.com, Uzi Nissan says flatly, with a hint of long-simmering anger, "They are lying."
"In 1999 we had 23 advertisers on our site," he continues. "Three of them were auto-related companies. [Nissan Motors] is claiming they were automotive companies. But none of them were selling or were in the business of selling cars or car accessories."
As for Nissan Motors, the company has released a statement presenting its point of view.
"We filed a lawsuit to protect our name, our image, our reputation with the global Internet community and auto consumers," it reads. "Every day thousands of people are logging onto nissan.com and nissan.net sites in the mistaken belief that they are reaching Nissan (the automaker). We think that NCC -- Uzi's company -- is improperly exploiting this confusion for its own benefit and is creating ill will among our actual and potential customers."
Should Nissan Motors have a better right to nissan.com than an individual who was born with the same name? Judging by the hundreds of e-mails I've received over the past few weeks, such corporate brand-name bullying is extremely unpopular. Perhaps it would be different if there was evidence that Uzi Nissan had set up his site to take advantage of the Nissan brand name -- cybersquatting is just as unpopular -- but such evidence is in short supply.
But what about Nissan as spammer? Although it doesn't seem appropriate to me, as a reporter, to threaten legal action against someone who is attempting to publicize his plight, I can also see why, in these days of ever-increasing spam, some media representatives might lose their cool over the mail being generated by nissan.com supporters. Uzi Nissan says that more than 800 messages have been sent to a list of at least 45 news organizations. That's a lot of mail. And the fact that a large percentage has been, shall we say, less than clueful, no doubt adds to the aggravation. Internet campaigns are all too easy. By overloading their targets with an extra dump of sophomoric comments on top of the Viagra ads, shemale dating services and printer-cartridge deals, they stand just as much a chance of backfiring as doing any good.
Nissan shrugs. "It's not spam," he says. The messages, he says, are being sent to "publicly listed addresses" for media professionals.
And as far as he's concerned, the campaign has been a success. In the last few weeks, he's appeared on numerous TV and radio shows and his story has been picked up by several medium-sized newspapers. If people want to be removed from the list, all they have to do is contact him and the mail will stop, he says. As he talks, you sense an element of impatience. He's fighting for his business against a corporation with vast financial resources -- and some journalists are getting uptight about spam?
We can always delete the spam. But corporate attempts to assert their brands over all opposition, and to use their legal resources to browbeat every challenger, are not so easily dismissed. Ultimately, despite the spam, the false accusations and the attacks on my own integrity, I'm glad Uzi Nissan used the power of the Internet to get my attention. If cyberspace is good for anything, it should be for helping the little guy get the word out when the big guys are threatening to stomp them.