June 5, 2002 1:30 PM PDT

Chia Pet seeks Web name ch-ch-change

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A fight to be top dog among pretend pets has hit the courts in California.

The maker of Chia Pets--those terracotta planters that grow into bushes resembling bunnies, pigs and even Mr. T--has sued NeoPets, the wildly popular virtual pet site, alleging cybersquatting.

Joseph Enterprises Inc. (JEI), which markets the planters through TV commercials with the "Ch-Ch-Ch-Chia Pet" jingle, argues NeoPets has illegally registered domain names including chia.info and chia.biz. The Web addresses resolve to the NeoPets site. JEI claims the virtual pet site is trying to trade unfairly off the Chia name. The Chia Pet maker is seeking a domain transfer and damages.

"JEI has been and will continue to be irreparably harmed," states the suit, filed Monday in federal court in San Jose, Calif. "No amount of money...can adequately compensate JEI if it loses the ability to control the use of its name, reputation and good will through the false and unauthorized use of its trademark."

However, in March, NeoPets filed for trademark protection to use the Chia mark for plush toys, games and other items.

Both companies offer alternatives to Fido or Fluffy and require owners to provide minimal care for the beasts.

To grow a Chia Pet, people buy a pet-shaped planter from the company and then apply a layer of Chia seeds that grows into a green coat of foliage resembling fur or hair. To grow a NeoPet, people log on to NeoPets.com, select a virtual animal, and tend to it by earning points through contests and games. One of the animals they can select is called a chia.

The NeoPets site is one of the top-ranking sites among teenage girls. Chia Pets, which have been around for years, have inspired people to engage in high jinks including Webcam sites where people can watch the pets grow.

NeoPets did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The case is just the latest cyber tete-a-tete among companies testing the limits of domain-name rights. Many companies have tried to maintain domains containing the names of rival or popular items. However, courts and dispute-resolution boards typically have sided with the owners of trademarked and widely used products, allowing them to reclaim the name if they can prove the other party registered it in bad faith or is using it deceitfully.


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