The Celebration's board of directors has suspended Marty Irby, president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' and Exhibitors' Association, from all activities related to The Celebration for at least one year.
The suspension is in response to a dispute over website domain names that were bought in the name of TWHBEA -- the organization that controls the breed's registry.
On Sept. 20, 2011, Irby purchased the following domains in TWHBEA's name: tennesseewalkinghorseworldchampionship.com and tennesseewalkinghorseworldgrandchampionship.com from GoDaddy.com.
On April 18, 2012, the Celebration sent a letter to Irby requesting that he transfer the domain names to them. At the time, TWHBEA was working on acquiring a sponsorship for the Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration. On May 4, 2012, Irby sent an email to TWHBEA's Executive Committee stating the following:
"My goal is to use the website name as leverage in a TWHNC Sponsorship if the EC (TWHBEA Executive Committee) sees fit. Surely the two domain names are worth $5,000 or more. If not we will just keep them for ourselves."
The Celebration eventually received the email that Irby claims was confidential, and interpreted the language to be similar to extortion. Irby says he thought the practice of buying and selling domains was common.
The Celebration then hired attorney Stephen Zralek of Bone McAllester Norton in an attempt to acquire the domain names through the National Arbitration Forum. The Forum appointed a chartered arbitrator, Houston Lowery, to serve as panelist for the dispute.
Lowery stated there is no evidence that the TWHBEA has any trademark or rights in the disputed domain names, which are "confusingly similar in appearance" to the Celebration's registered trademark of "World Grand Champion Tennessee Walking Horse."
Lowery determined that Irby's use of "leverage" in his confidential email sounded "distressingly like extortion," and "epitomizes the very essence of cybersquatting."
"Our lawyer told us that it would cost upwards of $5,000 to deal with, so we decided to just give the domain names to [the Celebration]," Irby said. "In the meantime, they racked up more than $11,000 in legal fees."
According to Irby, on July 17, he signed a letter on behalf of TWHBEA in agreement to give the Celebration the domain names.
"Then on July 30, I get this letter basically saying, you can't play in our sandbox unless you pay these legal fees we've racked up," Irby explained.
The Celebration is a private organization, which means it can suspend anyone they wish to suspend for any reason they see fit.
"I am very disappointed, but not surprised the current leadership within The Celebration would use such bullying tactics against me. The Celebration will never know what a great supporter and fan they have lost by taking this action."
The Celebration did not return phone calls or emails regarding the issue by press time Friday morning.