Hey! You Stole My Name!


Published in the New York Times Op-Ed


ABOUT seven months ago I was name-jacked. 

I hadn’t looked at my Web site in a while, but I figured that, with a novel coming out, I should bring it up to date. So I Googled deliaephron.com (I never had gotten around to bookmarking it) and it wasn’t there. Instead there was a message: This domain is for sale.

deliaephron.comI called the person in charge of my Web site, who happens to be a family member, and found out that he had neglected to renew the domain for reasons having to do with changing his e-mail and credit card. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We have a day left to get it back.” But we did not. When we tried to buy it, someone else already had.

Someone else owned my name. Someone could use it to say or show pretty much anything they wanted. I felt violated. Still, I kept my appointment with my dermatologist. It turned out she had been name-jacked too. “It’s no big deal,” she told me. “It’s a scam. You just have to buy it back.”

As soon as I got home, I rushed over to my local Mac store to consult Mike Rowe, the owner. “What could they want with my name? I’m not famous — I can’t even get a reservation at ABC Kitchen. Could I end up as a porn site?” Mr. Rowe advised me to hire Go Daddy, an Internet company with a domain-buying service that gets hijacked names back. You tell them how much you’re willing to pay, they locate the person who name-jacked you, and then make the exchange — money for your domain (which is rightfully yours to begin with).

Which raised the question: How much was my name worth to me? Was it worth more than a living room couch, more than a month’s rent? Would I pay $5,000 for my name? $10,000? While I was trying to decide, Go Daddy appraised my name and advised me it was worth $68. In the meantime I went into a domain-buying frenzy. I bought deliaephron.net, deliaephron.name and delia-ephron.com. Of course the anxiety wasn’t just over what the name-jacker would do with my name but what I would do without it. In this world of self-promotion, where writers are expected to do at least as much marketing as their publishers, how could anyone who presumably liked one of my books find out more about me, like why I wrote it or that I have a dog named Honey? Or, conveniently, find out what else I had written and buy it? My mother made a huge fuss about her daughters’ names. She bragged often that we had names that no one else had. Now I had a name someone else had. Someone from Japan. Because very soon, when I Googled deliaephron.com, a site popped up in Japanese.

The Web can freak you out, and I freak out easily. So I never clicked on the site and asked a friend who spoke Japanese to translate. I thought I might get hooked in a bad way, like tracking some guy on Facebook who’d done you wrong. But I was raging. What a way to make a living — going around stealing people’s names. What a cipherish thing to do. Really, think about it. And I did, night and day.

After several weeks, Go Daddy informed me that they were not able to make contact with my current domain owner. They would continue for another month but prospects were low.

So now the question became, did I want to sue?

I did. I was angry, and I wanted my name back. It represented my life — my hard work, my accomplishments, my point of view, my mother’s originality. I guess I was proud of it. I certainly didn’t want anyone exploiting it.

Jeffry Weicher, my new Web site designer (who is not a family member), explained that I had to file a claim with WIPO, the World Intellectual Property Organization, located in Geneva. Through Mr. Weicher, I found Patrick Bergin, a Milwaukee attorney who specializes in intellectual property law. Mr. Bergin determined that the owner had registered my domain with a German registrar to make it harder for us to identify him. So now I was suing a Japanese person (or company) registered in Germany in a Swiss court with a lawyer from Milwaukee.

I told Mr. Bergin about all the domain names I owned. He said a .com was far preferable to a .net. He suggested, while we were waiting for this to play out, which could take months, that I use deliaephronwriter.com, although many friends following this saga said it was too many letters to expect someone to type. Still, it was clearly me.

While I was suing, I had a new Web site built, but here’s the thing. Just because you have a Web site doesn’t mean anyone can find it. I Googled myself and still got only the Japanese site. To counteract this, Mr. Weicher instructed, I had to contact anyone who had the old hijacked Web site listed — like Wikipedia, various publishers, IMDb — and give them the new Web site name.

Can’t you just call up Google and explain: “Hey, when I put my name in, the right site doesn’t come up. The false site does.”

You cannot. I was effectively deep-sixed. Google my name, and my new site would turn up only on Page 2, 3, 4 or 5, and who was going to go to that much trouble to find me except my husband, who already knew where I was?

The cost of suing, estimated to be slightly more than $3,500, went higher when we had to protest a request from WIPO to translate our brief into Japanese. The brief we filed claimed that my name was well enough known to be, in effect, a trademark. It delineated my credits. “I tried to hit the highlights,” my lawyer said. My name, the brief concluded, was being used “in bad faith” for what is called a “parking site,” where you can buy products that have nothing to do with me.

Six months later, WIPO ruled in my favor, in part, according to the decision, because it was “a personal name that is both well known and relatively rare.” Thank you, Mom.

A couple of weeks later, the transfer complete, I Googled deliaephron.com. The link appeared to be slightly different, although still in Japanese. The great Google engine had acknowledged something — but what?  I noticed an option to translate. I clicked on it. In a few seconds the translation appeared. The headline read, and I quote exactly, “Measures Under The Safest Mutual Link Link.” The first line read, and I quote exactly, “Recently Google has become stricter measures link to the site have been under an spam.”

It takes a while for Google to catch up, according to my Web site expert. Two more weeks, actually. And not that Google cares — I mean it’s not as if I can call them up and tell them — but they should hire another Japanese translator.

published in the New York Times