New gTLD registries will be able to offer first-come, first-served sunrise periods under a shake-up of the program’s rights protection mechanisms announced a week ago.
The new Trademark Clearinghouse Rights Protection Mechanism Requirements (pdf) contains a number of concessions to registries that may make gTLD launches easier but worry some trademark owners.
But it also contains a concession, I believe unprecedented, to the Intellectual Property Constituency that appears to give it a special veto over launch programs in geographic gTLDs.
Under the old rules, which came about following the controversial “strawman” meetings late last year, new gTLD registries would have to give a 30-day notice period before launching their sunrise periods.
That was to give trademark owners enough time to consider their defensive registration strategies and to register their marks in the Trademark Clearinghouse.
The new rules give registries more flexibility. The 30-day notice requirement is still there, but only for registries that decide to offer a “Start Date” sunrise period as opposed to an “End Date” sunrise.
These are new concepts that require a bit of explanation.
An End Date sunrise is the kind of sunrise we’re already familiar with — the registry collects applications for domains from trademark owners but doesn’t actually allocate them until the end of the period. This may involve an auction when there are multiple applications for the same string.
A Start Date sunrise is a relative rarity — where registrations are actually processed and domains allocated while the sunrise period is still running. First-come, first-served, in other words.
This gives more flexibility to registries in their launch plans. They’ll be able to showcase mark-owning anchor tenants during sunrise, for example.
But it gives less certainty to trademark owners, which in many cases won’t be able to guarantee they’ll get the domain matching their mark no matter how wealthy they are.
Under the new ICANN rules, only registries operating a Start Date Sunrise need to give the 30 days notice. These sunrise periods have to run for a minimum of 30 days.
It seems that registries running End Date Sunrises will be able to give notice the same day they start accepting sunrise applications, but will have to run their sunrise period for at least 60 days.
There was some criticism of the old RPM rules for potentially limiting registries’ ability to run things such as “Founders Programs”, getting anchor tenants through the door early to help promote their gTLDs.
The old rules said that the registry could allocate up to 100 names to itself, making them essentially exempt from sunrise periods, for promotional purposes.
New gTLD applicants had proposed that this should be expanded to enable these 100 names to go to third parties (ie, “founders”) but ICANN has not yet given this the green light.
In the new rules, the 100 names still must be allocated to the registry itself, but ICANN said it might relax this requirement in future. In the legalese of the Registry Agreement, it said:
Subject to further review and analysis regarding feasibility, implementation and protection of intellectual property rights, if a process for permitting registry operators to Allocate or register some or all of such one hundred (100) domain names (plus their IDN variants, where applicable) (each a “Launch Name”) to third parties prior to or during the Sunrise Period for the purposes of promoting the TLD (a “Qualified Launch Program”) is approved by ICANN, ICANN will prepare an addendum to these TMCH Requirements providing for the implementation of such Qualified Launch Program, which will be automatically incorporated into these TMCH Requirements without any further action of ICANN or any registry operator.
ICANN will also allow registries to request the ability to offer launch programs that diverge from the TMCH RPM rules.
If the launch program requested was detailed in the new gTLD application itself, it would carry a presumption of being approved, unless ICANN “reasonably determines that such requested registration program could contribute to consumer confusion or the infringement of intellectual property rights.”
If the registry had not detailed the program in its application, but ICANN had approved a similar program for another similar registry, there’d be the same presumption of approval.
Together, these provisions seems to give registries a great deal of flexibility in designing launch programs whilst making ICANN the guardian of intellectual property rights.
For officially designated “geographic” gTLDs, it’s a bit more complicated.
Some geographic gTLD applicants had worried about their ability to reserve names for the governments backing their applications before the trademark owners wade in.
How can the .london registry make sure that the Metropolitan Police obtains police.london before the Sting-fronted pop group (or more likely its publisher) snaps up the name at sunrise, for example?
The new rules again punt a firm decision, instead giving the Intellectual Property Constituency, with ICANN oversight, the ability to come up with a list of names or categories of names that geographic registries will be allowed to reserve from their sunrise periods.
It’s very unusual — I can’t think of another example of this happening — for ICANN to hand decision-making power like this to a single constituency of the Generic Names Supporting Organization.
When GNSO Councillors also questioned the move, ICANN VP of DNS industry engagement Cyrus Namazi wrote:
In response to community input, the TMCH Requirements were revised to allow registry operators the ability to submit applications to conduct launch programs. In response to the large number of Geo TLDs who voiced similar concerns, the IPC publicly stated that it would be willing to work with Geo TLDs to develop mutually acceptable language for Geo TLD launch programs. We viewed this proposal as a way for community members to work collectively to propose to ICANN a possible solution for an issue specifically affecting intellectual property rights-holders and Geo TLDs. Any such proposal will be subject to ICANN’s review and ICANN has expressly stated that any such proposal may be subject to public comment in which other interested community members may participate.
While ICANN is calling the RPM rules “final”, it seems that in reality there’s still a lot of work to be done before new gTLD registries, geo or otherwise, will have a clear picture of what they can and cannot offer at launch.