"I never stole it. He stole it!" cries Stephen Michael Cohen, pointing wildly at the man who had been chasing him for over a decade. "It was you guys who went into court and explained that there was some cockamamie list and therefore he was the owner. The name sex.com has always been mine."
The cockamamie list referred to is the Internet's most valuable document: a list of the owners of all the Internet domain names ending with ".com."
And the owner of the dotcom mentioned -- the infamous sex.com -- is the man responsible for making all those millions of domains into property in the eyes of the law. On Jan. 19, Gary Kremen made the most of his extraordinary legal victory by selling that property for a record US$12 million.
But the tale of sex.com is about much more than property and money. It is a modern retelling of an ancient tale -- a Trojan war for the digital age, except with Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, replaced by the world's most seductive Internet address. It reveals what men will do -- and are capable of doing -- when confronted with their most basic desires of sex and power.
The battle began on Oct. 18, 1995, when Gary Kremen noticed that sex.com no longer listed him as its owner, despite him having registered the domain some 18 months earlier. Even at this time, the Internet had barely penetrated the public's consciousness -- the dotcom boom was another four years away -- but both Kremen and Cohen had realized that a huge market would soon appear in this entirely electronic and virtual world, and sex.com would be one of its prime pieces of real estate.
Despite having similar backgrounds as white, middle-class American Jews, the two men could not be more different. Kremen was a star pupil, gaining a degree in computer science before going to Stanford to sharpen his business brain. He has started a series of successful business before selling up and moving on, and his experience and understanding of the Internet makes him a prized consultant.
Stephen Cohen, on the other hand, was an appalling pupil, barely scraping through high school despite an extraordinary intellect. With no qualifications and poor literacy, he turned to a life of crime, using his wits and almost unnatural gift for persuasion to pull off a long series of increasingly complex scams.
After 20 years as a professional con man, he has become expert in company law, bankruptcy law, offshore bank accounting and countless other areas that proved useful in a lifelong quest for cash.
Back in 1995, while Kremen busied himself with building from scratch what is now the Internet's biggest online dating service, Match.com, Cohen applied his skills to figuring out how to get control of sex.com. Eventually, through a clever and complex mixture of charm, computer hacking and forgery, he managed to persuade the company in charge of all dotcoms, Network Solutions, to put the domain in his name.
It was the start of a vicious decade-long fight between Kremen and Cohen that witnessed sordid affairs and spectacular break-ups, ruinous lawsuits, the theft of court documents, a nationwide manhunt, a gunfight, illegal offshore accounts, international stock scams, multimillion-dollar court judgments, a trashed mansion in one of the world's most exclusive neighborhoods, and at the center of it all, two men regularly in touch by phone -- goading, commiserating, mocking and joking with each other.