Day 581: Betting The House Against Microsoft

originally published: August 3, 2013

Depending on who you ask, Microsoft might be an arch-villain monopoly, a life-saving brilliance factory, or something in between. I happily smush my syllables through Microsoft Word, prattle my system along the rattly road of Microsoft Windows (sure, it’s Windows 8, but I try to pretend otherwise), and I’ve dusted off a special parking space on my shelf for the next installment of the Madden football series for my Microsoft Xbox.

Evil corporation? Beneath the shadow of Monsanto and other such showpieces of modern villainy, I can’t condemn them with such a sweeping brush. But there’s no denying that Microsoft has spent at least a smidgen of its time on our planet being slightly dickish. I’m not sure the company would be the success it is today without that trait.

If you ask Langford, British Columbia resident Mike Rowe, he might not have the kindest of words for the wizards of Windows.

Just to be clear, this has nothing to do with Mike Rowe, the guy who tries out the world’s grungiest career paths, then teaches us to respect the shit-shovellers and sewer-snakers in our community. This Mike Rowe was a student at Belmont Secondary School, located in a suburb of Victoria. An enterprising teenager, Mike found he had a knack for designing web pages, a skill which is perpetually in demand, and potentially lucrative if he was good at it.

As luck would have it, Mike had a pun built right into his name. He registered the domain, and waited for the money to roll in.

Instead, he found scorn and disdain in the form of Microsoft’s lawyers rolling in.

Microsoft’s legal team descended upon Mike in the form of a letter from the delightfully intimidatingly-named firm of Smart & Biggar. Mike, who in all fairness probably had a hunch this letter would show up at some point, responded by asking Microsoft for some form of compensation for giving up the name, which had to date possibly attracted dozens of dollars-worth of business to his new entrepreneurial enterprise. To be fair, he wasn’t cybersquatting. He simply had a penchant for punnery and a name that fit this one perfectly.

The answer from Microsoft was curt and humorless. Ten bucks – the money Mike had laid down to register the domain name. That was their offer. Mike was offended. He countered with a demand for $10,000. And this was 2003, around the time the Canadian dollar was worth .001 of a cent more than the American greenback. Mike was serious.

Okay, this demand doesn’t exactly cast Mike in the most flattering of lights. Mike claims he took offense at the piddly ten dollar offer, but here it looks like he was going for a jackpot score.

Microsoft was not about to give in to what they felt was extortion. A 25-page cease-and-desist order was next on the menu, which prompted Mike to do his best to make his ordeal a front-page story. The media, who has an insatiable hunger for David-and-Goliath stories with corporate giants, granted him the spotlight. Mike garnered over six thousand dollars in donations from his fellow citizens, as well as an offer from a lawyer who was ready to strap on his battle fatigues and take on the corporate equivalent of the Galactic Empire. The page crashed when a quarter-million pairs of eyes tried to check it out within a twelve-hour span.

There was really no way for Microsoft to win this case. If they were to squash Mike, it would be a publicity nightmare. If they were to let him be, they’d be opening themselves up to any number of crafty web-slingers who found a way to semi-exploit Microsoft’s established brand names for profit.

Like Amish Shah, who to my knowledge is neither Amish nor the Shah of anything. Just a few years ago, Mr. Shah and his associates got into a scrap with Microsoft for registering a number of domain names which contained slight misspellings of Microsoft products. will plop you on Microsoft’s doorstep, but (or something along those lines) had no takers. Shah wasn’t hawking his own homebrew operating system, but he was taking advantage of the world’s clumsy fingers.

Shaw produced instructions – including a detailed video – on how to maximize website traffic by exploiting Microsoft’s already-established trade names. This could be seen as a crafty way to poke one’s fingers through holes in the system, but in the eyes of Microsoft’s lawyers, this was a blatant attempt to cybersquat on Microsoft’s trademarks, and with malicious intent to encourage others to bilk people out of money.

Cybersquatting requires a clear demonstration of ‘bad faith intent’. Judge Ricardo Martinez of the United States District Court felt that Shah’s intent was quite obviously rotten – he denied the motion to dismiss the case, and allowed the parties to settle out of court.

Amish Shah’s problem was that he never had the court of public opinion on his side. Here was a guy who was clearly taking a jab at Microsoft and trying to profit from it. It’s easy to root for David to bitch-slap Goliath; not a lot of people sympathize with the little guy who poked the bear with a stick.

In late January, 2004, Mike Rowe and Microsoft came to an amicable settlement. The domain name would transfer over to the giant’s corporate clutches, while Mike himself cashed in. Microsoft covered all of Mike’s expenses, including setting up a new domain and channeling his traffic from the old one. He and his family got an all-expenses-paid trip to Microsoft’s headquarters in Richmond, Washington, and Mike got free training for his Microsoft certification (talk about bringing him over to the other side), as well as an Xbox and a slew of games.

Mike donated most of his legal defense fund to a children’s hospital, and used the rest toward university. He auctioned off a copy of the 25-page cease-and-desist packet Microsoft had sent him, and he went on with his life, gratefully stepping out of the limelight.

In the end, Mike won. He got himself a nice windfall and defeated – albeit slightly – the largest corporate titan in the land by deftly employing the sympathies of the people. Microsoft also won. They came off looking like good guys for settling generously with Mike, but they also made it clear to anyone else who stepped on their toes (except, apparently, Amish Shah) that a win against them wasn’t going to come easy.

Not a lot of lawsuits finish up with a win-win like this.

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