France Seized France.com. This Miami Man Is Suing To Get It Back.

Jul 10, 2018
Originally published on July 12, 2018 1:08 pm

Jean Noël-Frydman was born in France, but he feels right at home at his house in the Grove.

"Coconut Grove is a neighborhood that appeals to the French taste," said Frydman. "It's not as organized as the rest of the city. Disorganization is a big French thing."

Trés bien. But recently, chaos in Frydman's business has turned his world upside down.

  

For the last 24 years, Frydman owned the web domain france.com. Then one day in March, France — the country — took it.

"How can you possibly justify what happened? How they did this?" Frydman said.

In 1994, Frydman registered the domain name France.com with the company Web.com, based in Jacksonville.

He used his site to set up an information hub for French speakers in the U.S. As the world became more and more dependent on the internet, his online business grew, and it evolved into a niche agency focused exclusively on travel to France. He also collaborated on campaigns with the French government tourism agency, Atout France.

"In 2009, they even promoted me to be a member of the advisory board of Atout France," Frydman said.

But in 2015 the good will ended. For the last three years, France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been using the country's courts to try to wrangle france.com away from Frydman.

That's because single-name domain names are a hot commodity. Israel.com sold for almost $6 million in 2008. Korea.com went for $5 million in 2000.

France seemed to have had no intention of making Frydman an offer. Then one Monday morning in March, Frydman got a shock.

"I got my coffee and logged on," said Frydman. "I typed in france.com, and it was routed to france.fr. Which is the website of Atout France — the French government tourist office."

France had seized france.com. No notice, no $6 million buyout.

France's Ministry of Foreign Affairs convinced the company Web.com to hand over the domain name on the basis of a French court ruling that said, essentially, the domain rightfully belonged to France.

Vivek Krishnamurthy, an attorney with Harvard University's Cyber Law Clinic, now representing Frydman, summarized the French court's ruling: "We are the Republic of France. France is our name. And therefore, we just have a right to any domain name that has the word 'France' in it."

"It's ludicrous," Krishnamurthy said. 

What about AirFrance.com? Or Iluvfrance.com? Or franceisbacon.com?

"The French government's theory that, 'We own [the word] France,' doesn't fly in the United States," said Krishnamurthy.

As it turns out, any domain name that ends in ".com" is a kind of virtual property that exists in the United States — and subject to the law of that land.

"There is a record on a computer just near Dulles airport in Virginia that is the master registry for every .com domain name," Krishnamurthy said. 

So Frydman is suing France to get his domain name back in Virginia. It's the same jurisdiction used by a man in a similar case.

In 2003, a man sued the City of Barcelona, Spain, to return his domain name: Barcelona.com. The city made the same claim, that the word 'Barcelona' is their trademark. That theory didn't fly in U.S. court, and the man got his site back.

Officials at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to be interviewed for this story, citing ongoing legal proceedings.

Krishnamurthy says perhaps the most galling actor in this case is not France, but the domain registration company Web.com. It was not part of the French court ruling, and it does not operate in France. Frydman and Krishnamurthy repeatedly notified the company ahead of time — when France comes knocking and says "turn over this domain name," don't do that.

"Don't do that because it's not consistent with U.S. law. Don't do that because Frydman's been your loyal customer for 24 years. And, at the very least, don't do that without notifying Frydman first," said Krishnamurthy. "Ultimately, they flunked all three. I think it just speaks very ill of the company."

Web.com declined to be interviewed for this story.

France is now using the domain name it seized, France.com, to redirect to a different French government site: france.fr. Frydman's lawsuit claims France is cybersquatting, or sitting on the domain so no one else can use it.

For Jean-Noël Frydman, the worst thing about this debacle is the way he's been treated by the country he's spent a lifetime promoting.

"Why would they put you on the street, somebody who for 25 years has done pretty good for France?" said Frydman. "That the country I come from treats me like this, it’s so shameful for me."

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