Lecturer treads on Derby.org domain

June 30, 2000

A senior academic at Derby University has been suspended for gross misconduct for trying to sell website addresses bearing the university's name.

Senior lecturer Mark Challinor bought the rights to six internet domain names incorporating the titles "Derby University" and "University of Derby". He asked the university to tender for three of them and began to "dispose of" the rights to three others to an undisclosed third party, according to the university.

Derby said it suspended Mr Challinor last week because it "believes that it is unacceptable for any employee to attempt to exact a profit from their employer". His actions, it said, "amount to a prima-facie case of gross misconduct, and he has accordingly been suspended from his duties pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing".

This week Mr Challinor agreed to hand over the rights to the names to the university "as a gesture of goodwill". But the university is to go ahead with the disciplinary hearing.

Derby discovered that it had been beaten to the domain names when it tried to register them for itself. The university uses the address "www.derby.ac.uk" but Mr Challinor has registered the university name with the suffixes .com, .org, .net, under the names "derbyuniversity" and "universityofderby".

The university was attempting to register the names to enable an expansion of its internet presence and identity, and to ensure that there could be no impersonation of the university on the web.

Its company secretary wrote to Mr Challinor demanding that he transfer the rights of the domain names to the university. At first Mr Challinor refused, saying that three names were no longer available. However, he said that he had three other names and that he "might be willing to negotiate their transfer if a suitable price can be agreed".

Mr Challinor is likely to face charges of breaching the implicit duties of trust and good faith in his contract of employment. But as he has now handed over the domain names he will escape any charge of breaching intellectual property laws.

While the law on "cybersquatting" has been largely untested, recent legal precedents suggest that the courts are starting to rule against the squatters in favour of registered, and even unregistered, trademark holders.

Ian DeFreitas, of City law firm Paisner, said: "The courts have begun to come down hard on the infringement of trademarks and 'passing off' through domain names."

He said that even if a university has not registered its name as an official trademark, it would still have a case under the rules on passing off, as it could show it has built up an unregistered trademark in its sector.

The episode represents a further worsening of relations between Mr Challinor and his employers. Mr Challinor is to become the first university lecturer to take his employer to an industrial tribunal under the Public Interest Disclosure Act, designed to protect whistleblowers from recriminations.

Mr Challinor was selected for redundancy after he internally raised the alarm about problems with the university's franchise operations in Israel. The problems are now subject to a formal inquiry by the Quality Assurance Agency.

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