Almost 10 years ago, Dave Van Allen, the founder of FastNet, an internet service provider based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, bought a web address for the 12th birthday of his son Chris. In doing so, he inadvertently started one of the first and most notable internet domain-name disputes in history.
"It was an awakening to the rudeness of the world. If it wasn't for the support of the thousands of people, I believe I wouldn't have been awarded the domain name."
Chris Van Allen's nickname was Pokey, so Dave gave him pokey.org. Chris embraced the gift, posting on the site pictures of his puppy and photographs of the planet Mars. But a few months later, Prema Toy Co., holder of the trademarks for the Gumby and Pokey bendable toys, began an effort to wrest pokey.org from its owner, claiming trademark infringement as Pokey is the name of Gumby's orange horse sidekick. Network Solutions, then the lone company authorized to dole out domain names ending in .com, .net, and .org, made plans to deactivate pokey.org until the dispute was resolved.
Chris's parents hired lawyers to fight Prema, explaining to their confused son that he had a legitimate right to the domain. Once the media got wind of Prema's bullying tactics, thousands of people around the world rallied behind the 12-year-old. They emailed him to urge him not to be intimidated, and posted criticisms of Prema on message boards. The fight over pokey.org symbolized the often murky nature of domain-dispute law, where companies frequently claim they have ownership rights even to domains containing generic words used in everyday conversation.
The spat sparked an unlikely publicity backlash against a creator of toys designed to be enjoyed by children. Ultimately, the then-78-year-old inventor of the Gumby and Pokey characters, Art Clokey, intervened in the matter. In April 1998, he declared that the domain should remain with Chris Van Allen in "the spirit of Gumby" (New York Times).
Joe ClokeyArt's sonis now the president of Prema Toy Co. Though he wasn't involved in the company at the time of the case, Joe says that his father never had any interest in depriving Van Allen of the domain. "It was just the broad brushstroke of his lawyer that caused this case," Clokey tells Gelf. "What we try to do is stop people from using Gumby for sex sites and things that aren't healthy or good." In 2003, Prema did just that, wresting the domain gumbysex.com from a domain owner through arbitration (National Arbitration Forum).
Gelf Magazine: What prompted your dad to give you a domain name for your 12th birthday?
Chris Van Allen: I was always involved in what my dad was doing. So when I was out at FastNet, I mainly hung out with the web-design department, and they'd show me little things here and there, and I started programming Java script and HTML at a really young age. And my dad saw this interest growing, so that's how I got the birthday present.
GM: How did you get the nickname Pokey?
CVA: I was a week late being born. My mother was in labor for a very long time, and she ended up having a C-section. So it started out with the fact I was really slow coming out of my mom, and then I always had to be asked twice to do things. I got it because I was always slow and pokey.
GM: Do people still call you that?
CVA: My mom still sometimes calls me that, but hardly ever. I don't think I've been called Pokey in a couple of years, and when it's been said, it's been in a very joking manner.
GM: What was your reaction when your dad gave you the domain name?
CVA: The internet was just blowing up right then, so I was excited to have my own domain name. I always had fast.net, followed by a forward slash you know, one of those user-member pages. I can't say I was ecstatic, like if my dad had bought me a car.
CVA: Back then, I was playing (the computer game) Quake, so I had a Quake section. I had a lot of information about me, things I was into. There were pictures from the Mars landing, and a "bored" section with links of places to go if you were really bored. And pictures of my dog Sage, my first dog. It was pretty much a family site and a site for me to experiment with HTML and Java script while relating it to the hobbies I was interested in.
GM: How often did you work on the site?
CVA: Everyday. Originally the reason I got into computers was that I had a knee injury at age 9 or 10 from a backyard football game. Since then, I've had 13 surgeries to date on my right knee. So when I couldn't be out doing things 12-year-olds should be doing, I was pretty much on my computer everyday working on my website.
GM: How did the controversy start?
CVA: There was a certified letter delivered to FastNet addressed to me. It was a cease-and-desist letter at first, saying I had to give up rights to the domain name immediately or they'd pursue further legal action. My dad brought the letter home and told my mom and me about it. We all discussed it, and the main reason why my dad fought this is to instill in me the principle that you always stand up for what's rightfully yours and for what you believe in, and fight for it to the end. And that's what we did. It wasn't really a question of if we were going to fight it or not, it was a question of how we were going to fight it. My dad got in touch with two lawyers.
GM: What was their main argument against Prema?
CVA: Our lawyers explained that the fact the site was noncommercial meant it couldn't dilute a trademark. Despite that, Prema's counsel filed a complaint with Network Solutions, trying to suspend my domain name.
CVA: Yes. I put something up on my website. We noticed Slashdot and Techdirt started picking up these stories, and then came floods of emails. I got tens of thousands of emails. There were message-board posts, letters, emails to my father, emails to anyone with the Van Allen name that got forwarded to me. There were websites strictly created around the issue. The prince of Tonga called me and gave me a lifetime domain name: pokey.to.
GM: Do you still have it?
CVA: Maybe. I think it may be shut down by now. (It is inactive.)
GM: What else happened?
CVA: Hundreds of Internet service providers came to my aid. They volunteered to direct Web surfers to sub-domain names, all with the word "pokey" in it, and direct people trying to go to pokey.org to those sites. I was in USA Today, the New York Times, and had interview requests for The Late Show With David Letterman and The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.
GM: Did you do those shows?
CVA: No, we didn't want to go that route, because we weren't doing it for press or attention. It was solely because what they were doing was wrong. My parents really kept me sheltered from the press as much as possible.
GM: Do you remember your conversation with the prince of Tonga?
CVA: I just remember him saying that my domain (pokey.to) would always be safe.
GM: What did you learn from the incident?
CVA: It was an awakening to the rudeness of the world. If it wasn't for the support of the thousands of people, I believe this whole situation would have ended completely differently and I wouldn't have been awarded the domain name.
GM: Any negative emails?
CVA: There were people who said I should give the domain up and not take a stand on this.
GM: What do you remember from your phone call from Art Clokey telling you that Prema would drop its legal actions?
CVA: We spent well over an hour on the phone, discussing the whole ordeal. He said to me that he had no idea that the company was pursuing it so aggressively. I remember him inviting me out to California. I was excited about it, but, like I said, my parents were keeping this from being blown up more than it had to be.
GM: So you didn't get to meet Clokey in person?
GM: Did Prema send you any gifts?
CVA: A Gumby watch and a letter, both signed by Art Clokey. It was my 15 minutes of fame when I was 12.
GM: Was your site getting a lot of traffic?
CVA: It was about 4,000 hits a day at one point. It really slowed down the FastNet server.
GM: Do you think Prema Toy regretted going after your site?
CVA: I definitely think they most certainly regretted it, because it was a PR nightmare.
GM: What happened next? Did you use the site for a long time?
CVA: I used the site for a while. I had the "tale of Pokey's past" up, which pretty much outlined the whole ordeal. I went off to college. It expired [in 2005]. You know, I was at college and was more focused on my life than my domain name at that point in time. Unfortunately, it got turned over to a gambling site. I'm currently trying to get the name back for the purpose of telling this story, because it is important.
GM: It's hard to tell who owns the site now.
CVA: I am currently trying to reclaim it. Any help from anyone would be greatly appreciated. (Please email me.) I'm trying to get ahold of the owner. I haven't been able to get ahold of him or her. I want to create a site dedicated to the story, not a personal site.
[Editor's note: Pokey.org is currently owned by the Swedish company Quality Unlimited, which did not reply to Gelf's emailed request for comment.]
GM: Would you consider doing it on a different URL?
CVA: Obviously I'd like to keep it at pokey.org for the essence of the whole situation. It's not even worth doing, to me, if it's not the original domain name.
GM: How much are you willing to pay?
CVA: I don't want to set a price out and have them call me and say, "All right. $10,000 right now. It's yours." I'm willing to do whatever's in my power to regain that domain name.
[Editor's note: Zetetic, a domain-name appraisal firm based in Davis, Ca., estimates the value of Pokey.org at $33,170.]
GM: You attended Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. What did you study?
CVA: I originally went for pre-law. This incident had me interested in corporate law. I majored in English and minored in business. I ended up leaving college and going to a domain-managed hosting company in Allentown, Pa.INetUand I was doing consulting for them. Before that, I had started my own web-design company.
GM: How long were you in college?
CVA: About two and a half years. It wasn't as much dropping out as much as it was pursuing a very good salary. I was 19.
GM: What are you doing now?
CVA: I'm a telecommunications consultant for NuNet, an internet-service provider and telecommunications provider in Allentown. And I own Arstic Entertainment, a promotional and marketing company. We work with record labels like El Chain Productions. I try to get involved in as many projects as possible without spreading myself to thin.
GM: What's your long-term career goal?
CVA: Right now, I'm following my career in internet technology, but my goal is to own my own company in the music industry. I don't know what kind yet.
GM: Do you invest in domain names?
CVA: Yes. I don't do it to resell them, but to build projects on them. I own about 15.
GM: What's stuck with you from the pokey.org incident?
CVA: That I should always stick up for what I believe in. And it got me very interested in how important the internet is.