Clemson freshman Will Shipley has impressed for the 9-3 Tigers. The second-highest-rated running back from the recruiting class of 2021 has scored 10 touchdowns, while rushing for 678 yards. Shipley has been a winner off the field, too. On Nov. 22, an arbitrator for the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) ruled for the 19-year-old in a dispute over willshipley.com.
The arbitration decision arrives as college athletes pursue NIL deals that are valued in part by the recognizability of their names. Some college athletes are also receiving additional compensation for education-related costs as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in NCAA v. Alston.
Shipley’s case is especially promising for college athletes who intend to sell apparel on websites they control. Not all athletes will land direct corporate sponsorships, such as Shipley’s teammate, quarterback DJ Uiagalelei, who signed a deal with Dr Pepper. Some will market themselves through websites or partnerships with direct sale companies like PWRFWD, in addition to influencing through social media.
Arbitrator Robert Badgley, who is also an attorney at Karbal, Cohen, Economou, Silk & Dunne in Chicago, awarded the contested domain name to Shipley after another person had registered it.
Shipley generated national media attention in May 2019, when he announced his intention to attend national champion Clemson. Six months later, an individual named Mike Speer registered willshipley.com with GoDaddy.com.
On Sept. 28 of this year, a representative for Shipley texted Speer, asking if he was the domain name owner. Speer replied:
“Yes, that is me. Thanks for reaching out. I have 3 standing offers for when I decide to sell. Please submit your offer here and I will let you know.”
On Oct. 7, Shipley filed a complaint with the WIPO Arbitration and Mediation Center, which provides dispute resolution services for IP, technology and domain name controversies. Shipley insisted the domain name be transferred. Speer didn’t respond to the complaint.
Badgley sided with Shipley for several reasons, including that Shipley uses his name for commercial purposes—as an identifier for goods and services—and therefore has acquired trademark rights in his name. Shipley, Badgley noted, has gained “recognition as identifying him as a star collegiate football player” and is “actively working to market that name for commercial purposes.” A website with a domain name willshipley.com controlled by someone other than Will Shipley could therefore cause confusion as to its source.
Badgley was also critical of Speer, who “very likely had Will Shipley in mind,” given that Shipley’s “fame as a rising football star was coming into view in 2019.” Badgley also drew attention to Speer “seeking to sell the domain name, apparently to the highest bidder.”
The Shipley arbitration falls in line with other WIPO arbitrations involving celebrities and cybersquatting. NFL linebacker Jelani Jenkins won his arbitration in 2014—a year after he was drafted by the Miami Dolphins—over jelanijenkins.com, in part because of his trademark rights in his name as an emerging NFL talent. Detroit Red Wings captain Dylan Larkin won a WIPO arbitration over dylanlarkin71.com along similar lines, while actors Halle Berry, Pam Anderson and Pierce Brosnan have also prevailed against registrants of domain names.