How a Canadian Oliver Stone Fan Rescued the Director's Dot-Com Web Domain

Oliver Stone - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

The namesake site has been returned to the 'Snowden' director after being allowed to expire, shedding light on the perils of celebrity cyber-squatting.

Hollywood director Oliver Stone just got his good name back — at least online.

A Canadian fan of the auteur director, Bill Sweetman, has returned the domain name to Ixtlan Productions, Stone's Los Angeles-based production shingle. That's after the previous registrant of the domain, Universal City Studios, failed to renew Stone's dot-com namesake, known to users as The Oliver Stone Experience, prompting Sweetman's heroic rescue.

"I've long admired Oliver Stone's work, especially his fearlessness at tackling controversial subjects," Sweetman, president of Name Ninja, a Toronto-based domain name acquisition firm, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I didn't want this 19-year-old domain to fall into the wrong hands because Universal City Studios had failed to properly safeguard Mr. Stone’s domain," the domain broker adds about the Snowden director's brush with celebrity cyber-squatting seemingly right out of the NSA leaker's playbook.

So Sweetman got wind of the dropped domain site, purchased it at auction a week ago and has since returned it to Stone. A representative for Ixtlan confirmed that the expired domain is back with the director, who covered Sweetman's costs for his effort.

Despite that happy ending, revealing what Sweetman knew about Stone's expired domain site will shed light on the risks celebrities face when their work or performances drive huge traffic to websites, only to see control lost overnight.

It's no surprise that celebrities go to great lengths to control and protect brands built up over years of connection to their fans. They trademark their personal names, for example.

But celebrities occasionally allow their domain sites with personal names to expire, either by error or oversight. Often those domain sites aren't trademarked. So, while someone can purchase a dropped domain name and sell it back to the previous owner, it can't be done for the wrong reasons.

Seeking a windfall profit or causing mischief risks violating the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, for example. "If a bad actor now has control over the domain name, they could do nasty things like forward the domain to an adult website, or the celebrity's competitor, or launch a fake 'official' website containing false information about the celebrity, or sell fake merchandise," Sweetman warns.

And if a star has other services, like a Twitter or Facebook account, tied to emails using the lost domain, a bad actor can use those emails to hijack the other services as well. "If the new owner wanted to be mercenary, they could hold the domain hostage and try to extort a ridiculous amount of money from the celebrity in exchange for transferring the domain," Sweetman explains.

With, representatives of the auteur director purchased the namesake URL from a domain speculator for $6,000 in 2012, Sweetman recounts. Later that year, the domain began hosting The Oliver Stone Experience website to spotlight Stone's life and work.

But on Oct. 16, Universal City Studios, the third party to which Stone's domain was registered and managed, dropped the ball and allowed the domain to expire. That immediately took offline and eventually headed to auction.

Of course, around this time, Stone had other matters on his mind, as his latest film Snowden, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the NSA leaker, had just hit theaters on Sept. 16. Luckily for Stone, Sweetman got wind of the dropped domain after it landed on an expiry list.

On Nov. 24, he purchased the errant domain at auction for $1,500. Once the domain was in his possession, Sweetman reinstated the original domain name servers, bringing Stone’s website back online.

The Canadian domain name broker next contacted Stone's production shingle to allow the director to reclaim the site, and at no profit to Sweetman as he received a payment of $1,508 from Stone to cover his expenses.

This time Stone may want to personally register his dot-com site. "Regardless of whether you’re an Oscar-winning film director or a member of the general public, having your important domain names registered in the name of a third party instead of your name is inherently risky," Sweetman says.

He adds, "If that third party fails to renew your domain name, as was the case here, it can be difficult or impossible for you to retrieve the domain name since, legally and technically, you are not the owner and never were." Sweetman has rescued and returned other valuable domain names to stars he admires.

He led the rescue of the domain in June 2010 while then working at Tucows, a major domain name registrar. Yet again, the domain was owned by someone other than Mercury's estate and was allowed to expire.

Sweetman worked with a former executive at EMI Music to contact Mercury's estate, to whom the namesake domain was donated free of charge. "We would openly like to thank Bill Sweetman and his team for their gift and allowing us to have the use of the best domain name for Freddie's musical legacy," the estate for Mercury's band Queen responded in 2010.

Sweetman recalls in 2009 also retrieving the domain, also then owned by someone connected to Collins, but not the rock star himself. And in 2012 he spotted on an expiry list, and donated it to Lucasfilm, which agreed to support one of Sweetman's charitable causes.

"We're thrilled to be the new owners of ... We regret having to refuse Bill's request that we deliver the children's toys in the Millennium Falcon. It was heartbreaking having to explain to him that it's not real," Lucasfilm spokesperson Miles Perkins said in a statement at the time.