Solar Home Inc has not only supported its business with four years of comment spam, it also engages in domain speculation and cybersquatting on other companies’ trademarks.Click here to see all the posts in this series.
In the process of investigating Solar Home Inc’s comment spamming, I came across dozens of websites that were all linked to Solar Home, either in the copyright notices on individual pages or on the About/Contact Us pages. Since most businesses don’t bother to maintain more than a handful of websites, the fact that Solar Home seemed to have dozens caught my attention. When I broadened my investigation into Solar Home’s websites, I found that Ron Winton (as “Ronwiserinvestor”), an acknowledged employee of Solar Home, admitted in a Motley Fool comment that Solar Home controlled “800 active websites” as of April 2014.
I also found that the 800 acknowledged websites actually represented a small fraction of the nearly 6,300 solar-related websites registered by Solar Home. Of those 6,300 websites I personally verified that over a hundred of them were explicitly tied to Solar Home and that, by offering several of those websites for sale, Solar Home is engaged in domain speculation. I also identified a few websites that contained the trademarks of other companies, including one that could be a Solar Home competitor, indicating that Solar Home also engages in cybersquatting.
If you’ve ever tried to register a domain only to discover that someone else owns it but is willing to sell it for hundreds or even thousands of dollars, you’ve been affected by what’s known as “domain speculation.” As with other forms of speculation, domain speculation involves buying a resource (in this case a domain name) in hopes that it can be resold later for a profit. Since registering domains can cost as little as $10 each when done in bulk, selling a domain for even $100 can represent a significant return on investment.
While domain speculation is legal, it has serious consequences for companies trying to start new businesses with an online presence and, like many forms of speculation, some people consider domain speculation to be unethical (see also this Cnet interview of domain speculator Michael Mann).
The most common form of domain speculation typically involves registering common words and phrases that combine to produce a marketable trade name. For example, a domain speculator in the solar market might combine the word “solar” with place names (“Denver” or “San Jose”), solar panel technologies (“photovoltaic” or “amorphous silicon”), solar financing models (“FHA loan” or “lease”), et al. In this way the domain speculator can create websites with names like “Denversolar,” “Sanjosesolar,” “solarphotovoltaic,” “amorphoussiliconsolar,” “FHAsolarloan,” or “solarlease” and then acquire them with the intent to resell them at a later date.
This is exactly what Solar Home Inc has done with respect to keywords like “solar,” “lease,” various state and city names, “grid tie,” “wholesale,” “incentives,” “bestbuy,” and so on.
To determine how many websites were controlled by Solar Home, I did a “WHOIS” search on the domain “solarhome.com.” This turned up the name of the person who registered the website, namely one “Laura Wade.” While I can’t tell if Wade is an employee of a registration company or of Solar Home, the registrar I used for the WHOIS search reported that she had registered 6,202 unique domain names. Domain registrars had two different contact emails associated with the various domains, “lauraw1782” and “laurainverters,” which were associated with 3223 and 2984 domains respectively. I found another 87 domains associated with a GoDaddy registration account, and two domains that were registered through the domain anonymity service Enom.com. All told this adds up to nearly 6,300 domains that are very likely controlled by Solar Home.
Rather than assume that they were all controlled by Solar Home, I visited domains that has substantially similar content to the comment spam posted by Winton and Ray Boggs (CEO of Solar Home) and used the “WHOIS” function again to see who had registered each domain. Since a full inventory of all of the domains would have cost several thousand dollars to purchase, I stopped after assembling the following lists.
Websites registered by “Laura Wade”:
Websites registered via GoDaddy:
Websites registered via Enom.com:
While time and registrar limits on free WHOIS searches eventually forced me to stop cataloging all the websites, I continued verifying that websites were associated with Solar Home via their copyright notices and/or About/Contact Us pages. The following list includes about a third of the other websites that acknowledge their association with Solar Home:
Simply owning all these websites is suspicious, but what demonstrates that Solar Home is engaged in domain speculation is that they’ve put several of them up for sale. Specifically, as of 10/12/2014, both “solarleasetexas.com” and “solarlease.com” are available for sale to anyone who can afford the price. This would seem to run counter to a comment made by a Solar Home employee (username “solarexpert”) at the Motley Fool website where he writes that
[t]he leasing companies would love to own the domains that we control. What solar lease company would not want to own solarlease.com or solarleasefinancing.com or what solar company offering any sort of financing that operates in New Jersey would not want to own newjerseysolar.com or arizonasolar.com or massachusettssolar.com and on and on.
If “solarexpert” is so intent on about keeping Solar Home’s websites out of the hands of competitors, then why would Solar Home ever put “solarlease.com” up for sale? The most likely explanation is to turn a tidy profit as a result of domain speculation.
According to Cornell Unversity’s Legal Information Institute, cybersquatting is defined as
when a person other than the owner of a well-known trademark registers that trademark as an Internet domain name and then attempts to profit from it either by ransoming the domain name back to the trademark owner or by using the domain name to divert business from the trademark owner to the owner of the domain name.
Cybersquatting is related to domain speculation in that the squatter is hoping to make a profit selling a domain name to someone else, but in this case the domain name contains someone else’s trademark.
If you look at the list of domains I researched above, you’ll find that there are three that contain another company’s trademark – “bestbuysolar.com,” “mitsubishisolarextreme.com,” and “stionsolarpanels.com.” In all three cases, Solar Home is very likely profiting from the website since all three provide, at a minimum, advertising for Solar Home’s products. Whether this is sufficient to make a legal case of cybersquatting against Solar Home is beyond my expertise (IANL), although it seems to meet the three basic requirements detailed by the LII – a plaintiff who has a trademark worth protecting, a defendant whose domain name is confusing similar to the trademark, and the defendant’s intent to profit from the confusion. Regardless of the precise legal definition, this certainly meets my personal threshold for what defines cybersquatting.
Solar Home controls thousands of domains. It controls domains that outside its geographic reach and that have little or no relevance to their company name, location, or products. It controls domains that include the trademarks of competitors and suppliers, cybersquatting on several of them. And it’s willing to sell these domain names for the right price. Put simply, Solar Home is a domain speculator and cybersquatter and, as we saw yesterday, a comment spammer too.
Tomorrow: Solar Home’s use of sockpuppetry.