On 8 April 2019, the Ghent court of appeal ruled that the domain name "brandweer.be" exclusively belongs to the Belgian State, since it is the "natural holder" of such a domain name. The international not-for-profit association that initially registered the domain name must transfer it to the Belgian State.
The Economic Law Code provides for the possibility to take action against "domain name squatting". Article XII.22 of the Code prohibits the registration of a domain name when three cumulative conditions are met. First, the registered domain name must be identical or similar to an earlier distinguishing sign of another party (e.g. a trade mark, trade name or family name), which could lead to confusion. Secondly, it is required that the registrant cannot invoke any "right" or "legitimate interest" with regard to the registered domain name. There could be such a right or interest, for example, when the domain name corresponds to a company name that has been in use for a long time. Finally, the registrant must have acted in bad faith at the time of registration, which means that he envisaged either harming a third party (e.g. by blocking the registration of a domain name without making use of it himself) or providing himself with an unjustified advantage.
Where a domain name has been squatted, the business court may order the cessation of the registration and, if necessary, the transfer of the domain name. After the Ghent business court had rejected the Belgian State's claim in first instance, the Ghent court of appeal ruled that the registration was illegal after all.
The court of appeal deems the first condition fulfilled since it considers the Belgian State to be the "natural holder" of the domain name "brandweer.be" (the Dutch word "brandweer" refers to the fire brigade). In this respect, the court refers to the extensive powers that the Belgian State enjoys in the context of firefighting services. According to the court, the general interest of reserving the domain name "brandweer.be" for the public authority must prevail over the private interest of the international not-for-profit association Brandweer IVZW. Following this reasoning, the court interprets the first condition quite broadly and considers the registration of the domain name to be unlawful because, given its nature, function and intrinsic characteristics, it belongs and has always belonged to a different "natural holder".
In its judgment, the court of appeal also rejects the existence of any "right" or "legitimate interest" on the part of Brandweer IVZW. It already held the domain name "incident.be" to offer its services online, which refers to its second trade name. Moreover, the court of appeal emphasised that the objectives of the association did not include firefighting as such, but only the "handling of complex emergencies, environmental incidents and accidents with hazardous substances".
Finally, the third and final condition for domain name squatting was fulfilled, according to the court of appeal, because Brandweer IVZW intended to obtain an unjustified advantage from the registration of the domain name. According to the court, the association exploited the reputation of the domain name "brandweer.be" in order to direct visitors to this site to its own website "incident.be". The court argued that this was done in spite of the importance of avoiding situations in which, in cases of emergency, citizens are confronted with a loss of time (and the possible associated dangers) due to the fact that they did not immediately reach the website of the public fire brigade.
The annotated judgment might open the door for institutions (perhaps not only public authorities) to recover domain names in their capacity as the "natural holder" thereof, for reasons of public interest.