The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s suit against a domain name registrar, holding that the plaintiff did not adequately allege that the registrar used the disputed trademark “in commerce” as required by the Lanham Act. The Court also extended immunity under the Communications Decency Act to include domain name registrars. Rigsby v. GoDaddy Inc. et al., Case No. 21-16182 (9th Cir. Feb. 3, 2023) (Clifton, McKeown, Thomas, JJ.).
Scott Rigsby, the first double leg amputee to complete an IRONMAN triathlon and founder of the Scott Rigsby Foundation (a nonprofit for wounded veterans and disabled persons), registered the domain name “scottrigsbyfoundation.org” with GoDaddy.com in 2007. GoDaddy is the world’s largest domain name registrar. When Rigsby failed to renew the domain name in 2018 because of a billing glitch, a third party registered the domain name and changed the content to an online gambling site. Rigsby filed suit against GoDaddy in the US District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, seeking declaratory judgment and alleging Lanham Act and state law claims. The suit was transferred to the US District Court for the District of Arizona pursuant to the forum selection clause in GoDaddy’s terms of service. The district court dismissed all claims with prejudice. Rigsby appealed, challenging dismissal and transfer of venue.
The Ninth Circuit affirmed dismissal. As an initial matter, the Court determined that it lacked jurisdiction to review the transfer order because the transferor fell within the Eleventh Circuit.
Turning to the Lanham Act claims under 15 U.S.C. § 1125(a), Rigsby alleged that GoDaddy knowingly provided use of the domain name in a deceptive manner. The Ninth Circuit rejected this argument for two reasons. First, § 1125(a) has a use in commerce requirement, and GoDaddy simply granted the third-party gambling site access to the domain name. The Court held that the third party’s use in commerce does not subject the registrar to liability for trademark infringement or unfair competition. Second, as a domain name registrar that did not engage in activities other than registration, GoDaddy is shielded from liability for cybersquatting under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA). Importantly, the Court held that the plaintiff did not prove that GoDaddy registered, used or trafficked the domain name with a bad-faith intent to profit—a registrar’s lack of intervention with an infringing third-party use is not equivalent to use in commerce or active promotion of infringement.
The Ninth Circuit also barred Rigsby’s state law claims and related injunctive relief, explaining that GoDaddy is entitled to statutory immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA). (See § 230(c)(1) (“[n]o provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”).) The Court identified three reasons why GoDaddy qualifies for CDA immunity. First, the Ninth Circuit joined the Second Circuit in ruling that domain name registrars and website hosting companies qualify as interactive computer services because GoDaddy “provides or enables computer access by multiple users to a computer server” under § 230(f)(2). Second, GoDaddy is not the “publisher” of scottrigsbyfoundation.org because the third-party registrant—not the registrar—is responsible for posting the gambling content. Third, GoDaddy is not acting as an information content provider because it made no material contribution to the website.
In reviewing the district court’s denial of declaratory relief for abuse of discretion, the Ninth Circuit affirmed, noting that Rigsby’s first requested relief merely repackaged its opposition to the venue transfer, over which the transferee court has no jurisdiction. Rigsby’s second and third requests for relief, seeking to block the third-party registrant and transfer the domain name ownership, failed because Rigsby did not plead viable claims to support relief.
Practice Note: Domain name registrars engaging solely in registration (1) do not satisfy the Lanham Act’s use in commerce requirement, (2) are shielded from ACPA liability and (3) enjoy CDA immunity as internet service providers.