Employerlike Domain Name Triggers Termination

First published: October 10, 2001

by Olaf Herrmann*

Jörg Zellmann, former employee of Adam Opel AG, recently sued the German company, following his termination in the spring of 2001. The auto dealership based Zellmann's dismissal on the grounds that he had infringed upon Adam Opel AG's rights by creating a website, Opelaner.de. In addition to Opelaner websites in top level domains, Zellmann maintained Opelaner.de, named after the trademark for Opel employees and afficionados. Zellmann claimed he informed Adam Opel AG of the website registrations in early 2000.

In late April 2001, Zellmann discussed the dispute with Opel's personnel office. The company voiced its concern over certain links on the website, especifically one to rotten.com, a site with graphic, offensive images. Opel also took offense at offers on his site for new cars listed at lower prices and offers of greymarket imports. Zellmann believes, however, that Opel's true reason is his site's success. Opelaner.de receives approximately 30,000 hits per month. Zellmann notes that Opel failed to register any pertinent domains, such as Opelaner.de, Vectra.de, or OpelPost.de, yet would now like to capitalize on their success.

After Zellmann's discussion with Opel they asked him to remove his site from the Internet. He deleted only the link to rotten.com. On May 10, 2001, Opel dismissed him on the grounds that he had harmed the company, triggering the lawsuit. In early June 2001, the parties compromised at the Bochum Labor Court (2 CA 1376/01). Under the settlement agreement, Zellmann would receive wages until the end of August, 2001 while his employment would terminate immediately.

Zellmann's rationale may prove accurate. After the hearings, Opel demanded Zellmann take his website offline, again stating it infringed upon Opel AG's rights. The company cited §12 of the German Civil Code of 1900 (Bürgerliches Gesetzbuch). This section assures the holder of a name of its name. The trademark is protected under § 14 of the Trademark Act (Markengesetz): § 14 guarantees the exclusive right of the proprietor of a mark.

*The author received his law degree from University of Göttingen, Germany, in 1999. Recently he completed the written part of the comprehensive finals for the bar exam. Now, in the summer of 2001, he is an intern with Berliner, Corcoran & Rowe, LLP, Washington D.C. Contact Olaf Herrmann via EMail at olaf.herrmann1@epost.de.

Return to Main Page