With great success often comes greater exposure to risk. As a relatively new, fully-online entity with over 800 million worldwide users, TikTok has become a more recent target of cybersquatting schemes. As cybersquatting becomes an increasingly prevalent form of fraudulent online activity, these cases serve as a warning to businesses and consumers about current cybersquatting activity.
Cybersquatting begins with the purchase of a domain name that is visually or aurally similar to an existing trademark or brand. When a “cybersquatter” owns such a domain name, they aim to use its namesake to make a profit. Owners often use the name to deceive consumers, leading them to believe the domain is the same as or affiliated with the trademark or brand the domain resembles. Other times, consumers visit the site unintentionally while in search of the legitimate site. Cybersquatters then may run ads or even their own separate business under the fraudulent domain name. Some even run phishing scams through which consumers are asked to input private information. Alternatively, cybersquatters offer the domain name for resale at a high price.
Though companies in the United States can sue cybersquatters under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA), it is most common to use the international arbitration system through the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to obtain rightful ownership of a domain name taken by a cybersquatter. ICANN, along with its member states, has adopted the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (URDP), effective in 1999. For an overview of the different cybersquatting laws, see this article. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is the leading ICANN-accredited registrars of Internet domain names and acts as a dispute resolution service provider for cybersquatting issues. To learn more about cybersquatting laws, check out this article.
There are three elements to a cybersquatting claim under the URDP: 1) a domain name is identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark in which the complainant has rights; 2) the domain name owner has no rights or legitimate interests in the domain name, and; 3) the domain name has been registered and is being used in bad faith.
TikTok is a social networking platform for video sharing that was launched in 2017. With over 2 billion downloads, it has become the most downloaded application on the Apple App Store. Bytedance Ltd., its parent company, has registered the trademark TIK TOK in countries including Japan in July 2018, the United States in January 2019, and Australia in April 2019 as well as Mexico and Hong Kong, China. It has also registered the domain name <tiktok.com> internationally as of August 2018.
CASE 1: Follower Services
Cybersquatters often use their sites to run a business that appears to be affiliated with a well-known company and offers related services.
Two young business partners from Australia, Fotios Tsiouklas and Alan Gokoglu, anticipating the popularity of the social media platform, purchased the domain <tiktoks.com> for just $2000 in the fall of 2019. Bytedance, TikTok’s parent company, offered Tsiouklas and Gokoglu $145,000 to buy the domain, but the owners refused to sell. Instead, they ran their own business on the domain, using the site to provide services that increase fame and followers of TikTok users for a fee. The pair also created new domains in 2019, <Growtiktok.com>, <Tktokcharts.com>, <Tiktokexposure.com>, and <Tiktokplant.com> for their business.
In August 2020, Bytedance filed a cybersquatting case against Tiktoks.com and later amended the complaint to include the newly created domains.
The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) administrative panel ordered the two friends to transfer all five domains to Bytedance. It found
(1) that the domain <tiktoks.com> and the others owned by the partners were confusingly similar to the TIK TOK registered mark and the domain name <tiktok.com>;
(2) the partners had no rights or legitimate interests in the domain names at issue, as they were not affiliated with the TIK TOK mark nor did they acquire any common law trademark rights to <tiktoks.com>; and
(3) it is highly likely that the domain owners registered these domain names with knowledge of the Complainant (Bytedance/TikTok) and targeted the TIK TOK trademark “in an attempt to attract, for commercial gain, Internet users to the Respondent’s website, by creating a likelihood of confusion with the TIK TOK trademark as to the affiliation or endorsement of its website,” and therefore utilized the domain in bad faith.
Offering services that boost a user’s number of followers on social media is a newly common way cybersquatters use fraudulent and misleading domain names resembling social media sites.
CASE 2: Other Related Services: Videomaking
A follower-boosting service is not the only related business cybersquatters run. In a recent April 2021 case, a man named Chris Bock purchased the domain name <tiktoktruck.com>, where he offered TikTok videomaking services inside his rental truck, which he described as a “Fully Transparent Mobile Glass Cube.” Again, the WIPO panel found the domain <tiktoktruck.com> to be confusingly similar to <tiktok.com>, noting that adding the generic term “truck” to the end of the name did not distinguish it from the social media giant. Like the previous case, the Panel also found Bock to have no rights or legitimate interest in the TIK TOK mark or acquired trademark rights to “<tiktoktruck.com>.” Finally, the Panel found bad faith use of the domain name since Bock used the original TIK TOK logo in conjunction with his similar domain name, demonstrating that he knew of the complainant’s existence and used the TIK TOK mark and domain name to misleadingly suggest affiliation for his personal business.
CASES 3 and 4: Geographic Confusion
Using a TikTok-related domain name to run even a site with services unrelated to TikTok’s is still considered cybersquatting. In another recent TikTok case, an LLC used the domain <ru-tiktok.com>, attempting to differentiate itself geographically from <tiktok.com> as its Russian counterpart. However, the site offered nothing but commercial space for advertisers under the original TikTok logo, attempting to profit from consumers that confuse the domains. The WIPO Panel declared the domain name was confusingly similar to TikTok’s domain name and trademark, utilized under no legitimate rights, and utilized in bad faith. The Panel ordered its transfer to Bytedance in November 2020. In a similar case last August, a cyber squatter purchased <tiktok.com.ua>, also attempting to appear as a geographic counterpart to <tiktok.com>, and offered search engine optimization (SEO) services through the site. Again, the Panel ordered its transfer to Bytedance. Domain names differing by geographic indications are popular among cybersquatting sites.
CASES 5 and 6: Money and Malware Scams
In addition to advertising and SEO, there have also been recent cases involving cybersquatters using TikTok-related domain names whose sites offer gambling services (<tiktokbet.biz> and <tiktokbet.org>) or redirect users to a link to download a different application (<tiktokads.business> and <tiktok-business.net>). These sites often lure users to input credit card information or download malware to user devices. Bytedance has been able to obtain these domains through a transfer order by the Panel, as well.
CASE 7: Resale for Profit
Unlike Tsiouklas and Gokoglu in the first case, many domain owners would have taken the $145,000 that Bytedance offered for <tiktoks.com>. Another motivation for purchasing domain names resembling well-known trademarks is the resale value. Large corporations will sometimes pay thousands of dollars for control over similar domain names to preserve brand integrity and ensure exclusive use of the mark. However, purchase of a domain name that is extremely similar to that of a registered trademark with the intent to resell for such a profit is another example of cybersquatting.
A man by the name of Jing Ren purchased the domain name <tiktok.in>. Ren was considered a “habitual” cyber squatter, one who repeatedly purchases domain names to sell for profit. In a separate case, Ren had purchased the domain Android.co.in from an Indian domain registration platform and put it up for sale for $19,500. Google sued Ren, seeking arbitration proceedings in India, and won the case– the arbitration committee ordered Ren to transfer the domain to Google. Similarly, Ren was also ordered to transfer the <tiktok.in> domain name to Bytedance before he had a chance to sell it.
Luckily, TikTok’s legal team has remained vigilant about finding cybersquatting sites and prepared to recover rightful ownership of the sites. Bytedance has so far won all of their recent cybersquatting cases filed with WIPO, resulting in an automatic transfer of domain name ownership. In doing so, it has made a significant example of how to identify and resolve current cybersquatting issues.
 https://www.wipo.int/amc/en/domains/decisions/text/2020/d2020-1749.html; https://www.wipo.int/amc/en/domains/decisions/text/2020/d2020-3084.html