If you saw the business section today in the Sarasota Herald Tribune you may have noticed the article about my fight with the Sarasota Association of Realtors over the domain name thesarasotamls.com. You can read the article here.
I never contacted Aaron Kessler, the reporter who wrote the story, about putting it in the story. He called me two weeks ago because he heard the buzz that was spreading across the internet like wildfire. The buzz started when Morgan Carey of RealEstateWebmasters.com wrote a blog post about my predicament - Sarasota Association of Realtors Domain Theft - Fight SAR MLS Support Our Members. This started the amazing support that I have received over the last 2 weeks. So far the blog post has been read 6,330 times by 4,165 visitors.
The support has been absolutely overwhelming. People from all over the country have called, emailed and written about my fight. I want to thank everyone that has contributed money or has supported me in this cause. Just to name a few - Morgan, Cal, Eric, Ryan, John, Joe and Colleen, Knox, Mert, Hector, Judy, Amy, Jeff, John, Mikey, Richard, Drew, Dennis, Brian, Carolyn, Jay, Kevin, Wayne, Eric, Julia, Vicki, Justin, Mike, Kevin, Jennifer, Justin, Bob, Paul, Jim, Calum, Gregg, Jennifer, Gary, Lou, Ryan, Paul, Tony, Ken, Mike, James, Chris, Steve, Jon, Jacqulyn, Jerry, Dorris, Derek, Paul, Alan, Joanne. These names are in no particular order and do apologize if I have missed anyone. Again, the support has been awesome! If there is anything that I can do for any of you don't hesitate to ask.
I think I have read just about every blog out there about this. I am not sure as there are so many of them. I have seen some inconsistencies so I wanted to clarify the facts in a timeline:
3/1/2002 – Mr. Internet, Michael Russer, publishes an article in Realtor magazine giving advice to Realtors about choosing a domain name. One of his suggestions is [location]mls.com. Realtor magazine is owned and published by the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Regardless of the disclaimer at the bottom of the article the practice of buying domain names with MLS in them is considered to be in good faith in 2002.
August 2003– I buy the domain name thesarasotamls.com. Prior to buying this domain name I call the Florida Association of Realtors (FAR) legal hotline as well as the NAR to ask if there is anything wrong with the domain name. Both of them stated that there is no rule against the domain name. Unfortunately, I did not get them to state that in writing.
Summer of 2006 - I receive a letter from the Sarasota Association of Realtors asking me to shut down my website. I meet with Kathy Roberts, the CEO of Sarasota Association of Realtors, in person to discuss alternative options. Supposedly SAR received an anonymous email from someone complaining about my domain name. Kathy Roberts could not produce the email. She says that she is going to contact NAR to discuss the issue and get back to me. I never hear back from Kathy.
They wrote letters to 28 other Realtors in Sarasota who had MLS in their domain name.
Summer of 2007 - I receive a stronger letter from SAR stating that if I don’t take my website down that they were going to take further action.
The other 28 Realtors took down their websites. I spoke with several of them. Every Realtor I spoke with felt it was wrong what SAR was doing. They made the business decision to shut down their website because they did not make enough money from the site to justify the fight and aggravation.
April 2008 - Possible ethics hearing - No comment.
July 2008 - the SAR board of directors decide to pursue this issue further. My previous broker called Kathy Roberts at SAR to get documentation of any complaints about my website received by SAR. To this day they have provided no proof of any complaints.
July 30, 2008 - According to SunBiz.org, the SAR filed a trademark registration with the State of Florida.
August 27, 2008 - I lost the ICANN case to what I believe to be poor legal representation.
There was dissent in the arbitration decision:
This Panelist is not convinced that Complainant established common law trademark rights prior to the registration of the domain. None of Complainant’s historical exhibits showed a specific intention of using the term in a trademark sense; the term was used interchangeably as both a noun and adjective and never included any trademark symbol. Symbols are not, of course, required, however Complainant had faithfully applied the symbol to its Sarasota Association of Realtors trademarks where they appeared in the same Exhibits. My conclusion from the Exhibits is that Complainant used the term as the descriptive name of its database and gave no thought to any trademark status until Respondent and other realtors began using MLS in domain names. I find insufficient evidence of trademark rights.
In addition, Respondent submitted evidence that a major trade association publication advised local realtors to include the term “MLS” in their domain registration specifically to drive traffic to their sites; while the trade association may since have changed its opinion about that matter, the fact remains that Respondent had a reasonable basis for relying on the recommendation at the time when the domain was registered.
Lastly, the trade group’s ethics panel declined to censure Respondent for this domain registration. Whether or not Respondent had any right to present the ethics decision in this case is a matter for the ethics panel to determine, but use of the decision here does nothing to prove that Respondent had any bad faith intention at the time the domain was registered. I do not find the ethics opinion dispositive, but only one more link in the chain of evidence that Respondent believed he had a legitimate right to do as he did when he registered the domain. Complainant’s remedy against bad faith use is under US law for which an action may be brought without regard to the domain registrant’s good faith at the time of registration. The UDRP, however, requires that both registration and use be in bad faith. I find no evidence of bad faith registration.
September 2008– Sarasota Association of Realtors joined the Mid-Florida MLS. There is no longer a central database of properties for sale referred to as the Sarasota MLS.
I hired a new attorney that filed a lawsuit in Virginia Eastern District Court. I redirected thesarasotamls.com to Sarasota real estate.
October 2008 - Network Solutions transfers thesarasotamls.com to SAR and they immediately use a 301 redirect to their website.
I hope this timeline helps. It is also important to note that in 5 years of owning the domain and hundreds of thousands of visitors I have not received one complaint from any visitors and SAR cannot produce one documented complaint from anyone.
Ironically, while I was writing this post I received a phone call from Dick Plumb. He is a Realtor in Sarasota and was 1 of the 28 Realtors who was asked to shut his site down. He saw the article in the newspaper today and left a very encouraging message and supports me 100%.
I have been contacted by several local Realtors telling me to stay in the fight. Many of them are very upset that SAR is spending the members money on this. One of them asked:
"Who is paying for all the legal fees
I do not have access to any concrete numbers, but the legal fees on both sides of this dispute are mounting. The SAR is using revenue from more than 3000 member's dues to pay for its legal fees."
Let me know how you feel about it. Tell me if I am right or wrong and why. Write a comment, shoot me an email or call me at 941-812-6272. I would be interesting to hear what other Sarasota Realtors, Realtors around the country or anyone from the general public thinks of this.