Archie Comics Drops Its Claim to Veronica.org

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the battle for control of an Internet domain name, it turns out the World Wide Web is big enough for more than one Veronica.

On Tuesday, Archie Comics Publications dropped its claim to the veronica.org domain name registered to 22-month-old Veronica Sams of West Los Angeles. Archie Comics had claimed that its trademark for the name Veronica, a character in its popular comics, gave it the right to the toddler's Web site.

"This is wonderful news," said Veronica's father, David Sams, who has been fighting Mamaroneck, N.Y.-based Archie Comics since October. "This is a victory for those of us who want to use the Internet just like the big guys do."

Executives at Archie Comics, which owns the veronica.com domain, changed their minds after Sams told The Times he registered the domain to maintain a Web site for his daughter at http://www.veronica.org, said Chuck Grimes, the company's vice president of business affairs. Although Sams told Archie Comics of his intentions three months ago, the company wasn't prepared at the time to take his statements at face value, Grimes said.

"We've got people telling us all the time that they're going to use our trademarks because it's for their daughter or sister or brother," Grimes said. "Oftentimes, they turn out to be untrue."

In 1997, for example, another company registered the archie.com domain name and opened a Web site featuring sexually explicit graphics. The comic book firm took the heat from outraged parents and ended up buying the rights to the domain for an undisclosed price to shut it down, Grimes said. The company has since registered the .com domain names for Jughead, Betty and, of course, Veronica, Archie's Riverdale High friends.

"We've been challenged by our fan base to give them wholesome entertainment and to make sure when kids go looking on the Net to find wholesome entertainment at our trademarks, they find it," he said.

The dispute turned an ordinary Southern California toddler into an Internet cause celebre, prompting pledges to boycott Archie comic books and several offers of free legal representation. An impromptu poll set up on Veronica's backup Web site at http://www.veronica.cc registered 40,000 votes in support of the toddler and only 2,000 votes against, Sams said. The family is scheduled to appear on NBC's "Today" show this morning.

Although the official reason for Archie Comics' change of heart had nothing to do with public opinion, the company's decision was lauded by cyber-law experts.

"The Net is a community of people," said David Johnson, co-director of the Cyberspace Law Institute in Washington. "Public pressure is a highly relevant factor, and it's entitled to respect. Certainly it is better to resolve cases quickly in a way that reflects community sentiment than it is to waste a lot of money on expensive litigation."

This is the second time a trademark-wielding company has challenged a child over an Internet domain name. Last year, a Pennsylvania boy who goes by the nickname Pokey saw his http://www.pokey.org Web site put in jeopardy by Prema Toy, a San Rafael, Calif., firm that owns trademarks for the Gumby and Pokey claymation characters. The boy prevailed when Pokey's creator told the company to back off.

Although children are now 2-0 against corporate America, the situation is likely to be repeated as the Internet's popularity grows among both companies and individuals, said Christopher Clough, a spokesman for Network Solutions, the Herndon, Va., firm that registers domain names.

"This subject has so many facets to it," Clough said. "There are the rights of domain name holders, the rights of free speech and the rights of trademark holders to protect their trademarks and their well-known brands. It's a balance that's still being found."

With that in mind, Grimes said Archie Comics insists it still has an interest in the veronica.org domain. If the Sams family operates the site in a way that violates the company's trademark, it will hear from the company again.

"You can bet we will be watching," Grimes said. "We are obligated to make sure it doesn't become a site that has obscenity."

As for Sams, the experience with Archie Comics has made a lasting impression.

"My wife is four months pregnant right now," he said. "I guarantee you when I name my next baby, I won't be naming it Archie."

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