A family of Green Bay Packers fans sitting on a website domain name — which they offered to give up in exchange for cash, lifetime season tickets, and Microsoft Surface Pro tablets — have come out on the losing end of a dispute with the NFL franchise and the tech giant.
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The domain TitletownTech.com was of particular interest to the Packers and Microsoft last fall after they entered into a unique partnership to bring a technological and economic boost to an area near Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisc.
The Packers publicly announced plans for TitletownTech, an accelerator and lab space for companies and entrepreneurs, on Oct. 19, 2017. Partnering with Microsoft, the innovation center is part of Titletown, a 45-acre plot of mixed-use entertainment including a park, shops, restaurants, hotel and more just west of the stadium in Ashwaubenon, Wisc.
The idea calls for TitletownTech to include three initiatives: TitletownTech Accelerator, TitletownTech Venture Capital Fund, and TitletownTech Labs to “help the region’s emerging and existing businesses define and build new digital products, transform their operations through technology, and provide capital to launch new ventures.”
Microsoft and the Packers each committed $5 million to TitletownTech over the next five years and have pledged to donate all profits and capital returns from the VC fund to philanthropy and economic development. Last week, Microsoft President Brad Smith joined Packers executives as they provided an update from the under-construction TitletownTech near Lambeau.
But the best-laid plans apparently did not involve securing an appropriate domain name ahead of time.
According to details found in a decision handed down by an administrative panel for the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), and tipped to GeekWire this week, TitletownTech.com was registered for a website and planned business called TitleTown Tech Solutions about a month before the Packers’ announcement. (The site’s home page can still be viewed via web.archive.org)
WIPO’s involvement in the matter came about when the Packers filed a complaint on March 23 against the domain administrator, referred to in the decision as the “respondent” and identified as Chris and Julie Harris of Green Bay, Wisc.
TitleTown Tech Solutions was being set up to provide “secure and reliable computer solutions to small and medium business.” According to the complaint decision, the Harris family followed the lead of numerous other Wisconsin businesses which use “titletown” in their name. They acquired the domain on Sept. 18, 2017.
The Packers apparently reached out via a service to anonymously engage the Harris family in September after discovering the domain name had been registered “just two weeks before.” The team offered $5,000 for the transfer of the domain name.
According to the complaint decision, the Harris family agreed to the terms, but backed out of the deal after the Oct. 19 TitletownTech announcement by the Packers and Microsoft. A counteroffer on Oct. 24 by the respondent promised transfer of the domain in exchange for a payment of $750,000 — plus “8 lifetime Green Bay Packers box seats, 2 parking passes” and “8 Microsoft surface pro’s [sic] with lifetime Microsoft office programs.”
The family states in the decision filing that its intentions in starting the business were legitimate, and brought about when their son Michael was “looking for another job” and “investigated the potential for starting a network systems administration consulting business.” When the third-party agency reached out with an offer to purchase the domain name, Michael was reportedly suspicious over a request for account information and the refusal by the agency to speak on the phone.
That suspicion is blamed for breaking off the deal, the family stated. But when the Packers made their Oct. 19 press announcement, the family was “very frustrated with the treatment they had received” and “felt as though an organization that they admire greatly … [was] being coy and trying to trick them.”
The Harris family acknowledged in the decision that its “counteroffer was excessive, but it was not meant as a serious counteroffer and instead meant to send a message and came from a place of frustration.”
The Packers argued a number of points in order to “obtain the relief” they were seeking with WIPO, including that the respondent “intentionally falsified its registration contact information, including fraudulently adopting complainant’s address as its own, which strongly supports a finding of bad faith.”
And in the end, the NFL franchise with more titles than any other team ultimately did what it has done for years — win. WIPO ruled on May 28 that the TitletownTech.com domain must be transferred from the Harris family to the team and Microsoft.
GeekWire reached out for comment from the Packers organization, Microsoft, and Davis & Kuelthau — the law firm named as representatives for the Harris family — and has updated the story below.
Update, Tuesday, 3:50 p.m. PT: Joe Heino, chair of the intellectual property practice for Davis & Kuelthau out of Milwaukee, told GeekWire in a call Tuesday that he thinks his clients “overreached” when they made their demands for money, tickets and more from the Packers and Microsoft. But the family did not have advice of counsel when they made that counteroffer.
Regardless, Heino did not think the Packers met the required finding of bad faith necessary to invoke the transfer of the domain name.
“The fact finders relied on this exorbitant counter proposal and said that part of that was the bad faith,” Heino said. “The other part was the fact that the clients likely knew that [TitletownTech] was in the works. But they swore up and down that they didn’t know anything about the arrangement between the Packers and Microsoft.
“Even if you put all those things together, it still does not show bad faith at the time the [domain name] is purchased,” Heino added. “It shows after-the-fact bad faith, but not bad faith at the time of the acquisition of the domain name.”
The Harris family came away with nothing, Heino said.
“If the Packers and Microsoft were so hot to trot on this name, why then did they wait so long to try to capture it?” he asked. “To me, the timing didn’t make sense. That’s one of the first things that you do when you’re trying to use a name and assert it in a certain way, is to make sure that no one else has gotten in the way of your domain name or your trademark.
“Somehow, no pun intended, the ball fell between the cracks,” Heino concluded.
Update, Tuesday, 4:45 p.m. PT: In a call to GeekWire, the Packers declined to offer any comment on the case.