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Thursday, February 8, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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L.A. activists beat WaMu in domain-name game

Seattle Times business reporter

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Washington Mutual has lost a domain-name spat with two groups of activists battling the thrift's plans to develop a big tract of land in suburban Los Angeles.

The World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva turned down Washington Mutual's effort to strip the groups of three Web-site names - ahmanson.org, ahmansonranch.com and ahmanson-ranch.com. The activists have used the sites to argue against the development of 2,800-acre Ahmanson Ranch.

Seattle-based Washington Mutual inherited the project in 1998 when it bought the parent company of Home Savings of America. It wants to build a "mini-city" on the site, including 3,050 houses and apartment units, shops, offices, two golf courses and a hotel.

But the project has been mired in controversy for more than a decade. Opponents argue the property is environmentally sensitive - it is home to a threatened species of frog and a wildflower thought extinct for decades - and that developing it would further snarl the area's traffic.

One activist, Vince Curtis, registered two of the domains in 1998; the group Save Open Space registered the third in late 1999.

The company challenged the activists' rights to the domain names in July, saying their sites infringed its trademarks. Curtis and other activists replied Washington Mutual didn't yet have valid trademark on the Ahmanson names, and its real intent was to squelch their protests.

The dispute went to the World Intellectual Property Organization, which administers several international treaties relating to patents, copyright and trademarks. The organization also arbitrates domain-name disputes.

Its panel ruled the activists' use of the Ahmanson name was "legitimate non-commercial or fair use," as distinguished from "cybersquatting" - the practice of registering a company's or celebrity's name as a Web site and then hoping to sell it at a profit.

The decision was dated Dec. 4 but not made public until Tuesday.

"We felt great," Curtis said yesterday. "I hope it will send a message to (Washington Mutual) that they have to use reasonableness."

Tim McGarry, a spokesman for Washington Mutual in Los Angeles, said the company was surprised and disappointed by the decision but had not decided whether to pursue the issue in federal court.

McGarry added that the ruling would not change the intent to develop the project. With several ongoing permit processes and environmental reviews, groundbreaking isn't expected until next year, he said.

Also yesterday, Washington Mutual said it had completed its tender offer for the preferred stock of Houston-based Bank United, with more than 90 percent of the preferred shares tendered.

Bank United shareholders will meet today to vote on the $1.5 billion deal, the last formality.

Drew DeSilver's phone message number is 206-464-3145. His e-mail address is ddesilver@seattletimes.com.

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