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Claims UDRP has cost over $360 million so far

Kevin Murphy, February 13, 2019, Domain Policy

Trademark owners have splashed out over $360 million on UDRP cases over the 20 years the policy has been active, according to an intellectual property trade group.

Marques, a European body representing trademark owners, reckons $360 million is a “conservative” estimate.

It reached the figure by multiplying the number of UDRP complaints filed to the end of 2018 — 72,038 — by the $5,000 estimated total cost of each complaint.

The World Intellectual Property Organization, which handles well over half of all UDRP cases, charges at least $1,500 per case, but trademark owners have other fees, such as paying lawyers to draft the complaints.

WIPO, which basically designed and wrote the UDRP back in 1998, has been paid at least $63.8 million in filing fees to date, Marques calculates.

Across all UDRP providers, well over 100,000 individual domain names have been subject to UDRP. It’s likely much more, but the National Arbitration Forum does not publish data on unique domains.

The Marques claims were made in a letter (pdf) from council member (and Com Laude managing director) Nick Wood to ICANN last week, part of IP lobbying efforts in the face of UDRP reform efforts. He wrote:

This lowest-case estimate of $360m is a very significant financial burden. Registrants, on the other hand, pay only for their own defence, if any. They do not pay damages, or even contribute to the provider fees, if they lose – which across the five active panel providers appears to be majority of the time.

One proposal that has been put forward by IP owners is for registrants to pay a $500 fee when they are hit by a UDRP complaint, which would be refundable if they prevail.

I can see this idea going down like a cup of iced sick in the domainer community.

Rather than lobbying for any specific proposal, however, Marques is asking ICANN to create an “independent expert group” outside of the usual Policy Development Process, to highlight “priority issues and possible solutions” for the PDP to consider.

Marques thinks the group should comprise a small number of trademark interests, registries and registrars, and registrant rights groups. It wants WIPO to chair it.

It also wants ICANN to coordinate UDRP providers in the creation of a unified set of data on UDRP cases processed to date, to help with future reform discussions.

ICANN community volunteers have been working on the “PDP Review of All Rights Protection Mechanisms in All gTLDs” — the RPM WG — since March 2016.

The RPM WG expects to put out its “Phase One” initial report, comprising recommendations for reform of the Trademark Clearinghouse, Trademark Claims and Sunrise policies, in early June this year.

Only then will it turns its attention to UDRP, in “Phase Two”, with talks due to begin at the ICANN 65 meeting in Marrakech later that month.

The working group has been beset by all kinds of personal drama among volunteers recently, which continues to add friction to discussions.

Court rules generic dictionary domains CAN be trademarked

Kevin Murphy, February 11, 2019, Domain Policy

A US appeals court has ruled that generic, dictionary domain names can be trademarked.

The hotel-booking web site Booking.com was told last week that it is in fact eligible to have “Booking.com” registered as a trademark, over the objections of the US Patent and Trademark Office.

The ruling could have a chilling effect on domain name choices in the hotel-booking market.

USPTO had denied the company’s trademark application in 2012 because “Booking.com” was considered too generic.

Under US trademark law, you can’t register a trademark if it merely generically describes the product or service you offer rather than its source.

You couldn’t register “Beer” as a brand of beer, for example, though you might be able to register “Beer” as a brand of shoes.

Booking.com sued to have the USPTO ruling overturned in 2016, and in 2017 a district court judge ruled that “although ‘booking’ was a generic term for the services identified, BOOKING.COM as a whole was nevertheless a descriptive mark”.

USPTO appealed, saying that “Booking.com” is too generic to be trademarked, but last week it lost.

In a 2-1 majority decision, the appeals court ruled:

We hold that the district court, in weighing the evidence before it, did not err in finding that the USPTO failed to satisfy its burden of proving that the relevant public understood BOOKING.COM, taken as a whole, to refer to general online hotel reservation services rather than Booking.com the company… we reject the USPTO’s contention that adding the
top-level domain (a “TLD”) .com to a generic second-level domain (an “SLD”) like booking can never yield a non-generic mark.

Key evidence was a survey Booking.com had submitted that indicated that almost three quarters of consumers understood “Booking.com” to be a brand name, rather than a generic term to describe hotel-booking web sites.

Here are some other extracts of the appeals court majority’s thinking, as they relate to domain names:

Merely appending .com to an SLD does not render the resulting domain name non-generic because the inquiry is whether the public primarily understands the term as a whole to refer to the source or the proffered service.

We… conclude that when “.com” is combined with an SLD, even a generic SLD, the resulting composite may be non-generic where evidence demonstrates that the mark’s primary significance to the public as a whole is the source, not the product

because trademarks only protect the relevant service — here, the district court granted protection as to hotel reservation services but not travel agency services — protection over BOOKING.COM would not necessarily preclude another company from using, for example, carbooking.com or flightbooking.com

In sum, adding “.com” to an SLD can result in a non-generic, descriptive mark upon a showing of primary significance to the relevant public. This is one such case.

The ruling does not appear to protect all uses of a generic dictionary word combined with a TLD, but rather only “rare circumstances” where there’s evidence of a secondary, non-generic meaning.

One judge on the case, James Wynn, was not convinced by the majority’s thinking. He warned that the ruling goes against years of legal precedent and could enable Booking.com to subject competitors to expensive litigation.

In his dissenting opinion, he wrote:

BOOKING.COM is a run-of-the-mill combination of a generic term with a Top Level Domain that creates a composite mark concerning the subject or business encompassed by the generic term—precisely the type of mark that the courts in Hotels.com, Reed Elsevier Properties, 1800Mattress.com, and Advertise.com found did not amount to the “rare circumstance” that warranted affording the domain name trademark protection.

Presumptively allowing protection of domain names composed of a generic Secondary Level Domain and Top Level Domain conflicts with the law’s longstanding refusal to permit registration of generic terms as trademark

Wynn added that he was “not convinced” that Booking.com’s competitors that use the word “booking” in their domains will be protected by the “fair use” defense, and that the existence of such a defense will not prevent Booking.com from suing them out of business regardless.

Put simply, putative competitors may — and likely will — choose not to operate under domain names that include the word “booking” — even if that term best describes the service they offer — because they do not want to incur the expense and risk of defending an infringement action.

The full ruling can be read here (pdf).

After ICANN knockback, Amazon countries agree to .amazon talks

Kevin Murphy, February 4, 2019, Domain Policy

Talks that could lead to Amazon finally getting its long-sought .amazon gTLD are back on, after a dispute between ICANN and eight South American governments.

The Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization last week invited ICANN CEO Goran Marby to meet ACTO members in Brasilia, any day next week.

It’s not clear whether Amazon representatives have also been invited.

The outreach came despite, or possibly because of, ICANN’s recent rejection of an ACTO demand that the .amazon gTLD applications be returned to their old “Will Not Proceed” status.

In rejecting ACTO’s Request for Reconsideration, ICANN’s board of directors had stressed that putting .amazon back in the evaluation stream was necessary in order to negotiate contractual concessions that would benefit ACTO.

Amazon is said to have agreed to some Public Interest Commitments that ACTO would be able to enforce via ICANN’s PIC Dispute Resolution Process.

The e-commerce giant is also known to have offered ACTO cultural safeguards and financial sweeteners.

ACTO’s decision to return to the negotiating table may have been made politically less uncomfortable due to a recent change in its leadership.

Secretary-general Jacqueline Mendoza, who had held the pen on a series of hard-line letters to Marby, was in January replaced by Bolivian politician Alexandra Moreira after her three-year term naturally came to an end.

ICANN’s board has said it will look at .amazon again at its meetings in Kobe, Japan, in March.

ICANN picks Seattle for public meeting

Kevin Murphy, January 30, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN will hold one of its 2021 public meetings in Seattle, Washington.

The organization’s board of directors directed the CEO to start talks with the yet-unnamed venue at its meeting at the weekend.

The meeting, ICANN 72, will be the 2021 Annual General meeting and will be held from October 23 to 28.

Believe it or not, it will be the first time a public ICANN meeting has been held on the mainland United States since the LA meeting in 2014.

That’s quite a feat, given that ICANN’s definition of “North America” basically only has two countries in it.

Brexit won’t just affect Brits, .eu registry says

Kevin Murphy, January 25, 2019, Domain Policy

European Union citizens living in the UK could find their .eu domain names shut off in the next few months, EURid has said.

In a just-published update to its Brexit guidance, the registry has told Brits that they stand to lose their domains on May 30, should the UK leave the EU with no transition deal.

That would give them just two months to transfer their domains to an entity in one of the remaining 27 member states.

On May 30, affected domains will be removed from the .eu zone file and will stop resolving, technically entering “withdrawn” status.

It will be no longer be possible to renew these domains, nor to transfer any domains to a UK-based registrant.

All affected domains — over 273,000 at the last-published count — will be deleted and released back into the available pool, in batches, following March 30, 2020.

This could be good news for domainers in the EU27, given that the deleted domains may include potentially valuable generics.

But EU27 citizens currently residing in the UK, who for whatever reason are unable to transfer their names to an address in their home country, will be treated at first in the same way as Brits. EURid said:

There may be situations of EU citizens, who at present are residing in the UK and have registered a .eu domain name. These citizens would become ineligible as a result of the UK withdrawal and would, therefore lose their eligibility for a .eu domain name, but might become eligible again when the new .eu regulatory framework comes into force later this year. At present, such individuals will experience a disruption of service from 30 May 2019, as a result of the withdrawal of the name.

The registry said last month that new regulations are coming that would allow EU citizens to register .eu domains no matter in which country they live.

Before these regulations kick in, these EU registrants will find their names unresolvable.

By May 30, starving Brits will be far too preoccupied with beating each other to death in the streets for scraps of the country’s last remaining baguette, trading sexual favors for insulin, and so on, so .eu domains will likely be among the least of their no-deal Brexit concerns.

The situation for registrants if the UK leaves the EU with a deal is less urgent. Their domains will stop functioning March 2, 2021, and from January 1, 2022, will be released back into the pool for registration.

Brits would be able to register new .eu domains all the way through the transition period, until the end of December 2020.

It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that Brits could be grandfathered in to .eu eligibility, should the UK leave on terms similar to European Economic Area members such as Norway, which are eligible under the existing rules.

Currently, it’s anyone’s guess whether we’re leaving with a deal or without. The government’s proposed transition plan was defeated earlier this month in an unprecedented revolt by members of parliament, which leaves no-deal enshrined in the statute books as the default option.

The government is currently attempting to talk its MPs into switching sides, but many suspect it’s just attempting to run down the clock to the March 29 Brexit deadline, compelling MPs to vote for the transition at the eleventh hour as the lesser of two evils.

The opposition is currently urging the government to rule out a no-deal scenario, to discourage British businesses from executing potentially irreversible and damaging exit plans, but the government is reluctant to do so, fearing it could weaken its negotiating hand with the EU27.

The far more-sensible option — giving British voters the opportunity to change their minds with a referendum — appears to be gaining support among MPs but still seems like a pipe dream.

There’s some evidence that the UK is now officially a demographically Remain country, simply due to the number of elderly racists who have died, and the number of youthful idealists who have reached voting age, since the original 2016 referendum.

ICANN creates female-heavy anti-harassment team

Kevin Murphy, January 21, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors has created a new team to look at issues of harassment in the community.

The new Board Working Group on Anti-Harassment has eight members, six of whom are women.

In fact, all six female members of the board, including non-voting liaisons, have been appointed to the group.

The members are Becky Burr, Chris Disspain, Avri Doria, Lito Ibarra, Manal Ismail, Merike Kaeo and Tripti Sinha. It will be chaired by Sarah Deutsch.

The board said “a focused group of Board members can be part of a group that is trying to help create an environment where the ICANN community is free to focus on the mission and not on behaviors that should not be a part of the working environment.”

Harassment, particularly sexual harassment, has been a simmering topic in the community for a few years, ever since the infamous Cheesesandwichgate affair.

In response, ICANN created its first anti-harassment policy, to complement its longstanding Expected Rules of Behavior.

At ICANN 63 in Barcelona last October, I noticed several unavoidably prominent warnings — billboards the height of a man person — warning attendees against harassing their fellow participants, citing the policy.

In late 2017, an unscientific survey of ICANN community members found that one in three women had experienced or witnessed sexism while participating.

But ICANN’s Ombudsman told DI at the time that no complaints had been filed under the harassment policy in the first eight months it was in effect, even as the #MeToo movement took off.

Critics say that women are reluctant to report incidents to the Ombudsman because he is a man. I expect this is something the new board working group will look at.

In March last year, a group of female community members wrote to ICANN with a set of stories about how they had been harassed at ICANN meetings.

While stopping short of any serious criminal allegations, the stories depicted a working environment that can sometimes be very hostile to women, particularly when alcohol is involved.

ICANN chief gets $100k bonus

Kevin Murphy, January 21, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN CEO Goran Marby has been awarded almost $100,000 of his annual bonus.

The ICANN board of directors last week voted to approve the first half of his fiscal year 2019 “at risk compensation”, what ICANN calls the discretionary, performance-driven part of its executive compensation packages.

Marby’s salary is $653,846.17 per annum, and the at-risk component is an additional 30% of that. Half of the bonus comes to just over $98,000.

His base pay is about $23,000 more than immediate predecessor Fadi Chehade, but considerably less than two-CEOs-ago Rod Beckstrom, who took home $750,000 and, if it was paid, $195,000 in bonuses.

While at-risk compensation is based on predetermined goals, these goals are not typically made public.

ICANN salaries are based on paying between the 50th and 75th percentile of average wages across the high-tech, non-profit and general industry.

ICANN puts deadline on .amazon talks

Kevin Murphy, January 21, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN’s board of directors has voted to put a March deadline on talks over the future of the .amazon gTLD.

Late last week, the board formally resolved to “make a decision” on .amazon at ICANN 64, which runs in Kobe, Japan from March 9 to March 14.

It would only do so if Amazon the e-commerce giant and the eight governments of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization fail to come to a “mutually agreed solution” on their differences before then.

CEO Goran Marby is instructed to facilitate these talks.

Here are the relevant resolved clauses from the resolution:

Resolved (2019.01.16.03), the Board hereby reiterates that Resolution 2018.10.25.18 was taken with the clear intention to grant the President and CEO the authority to progress the facilitation process between the ACTO member states and the Amazon corporation with the goal of helping the involved parties reach a mutually agreed solution, but in the event they are unable to do so, the Board will make a decision at ICANN 64 on the next steps regarding the potential delegation of .AMAZON and related top-level domains.

Resolved (2019.01.16.04), the Board encourages a high level of communication between the President and CEO and the relevant stakeholders, including the representatives of the Amazonian countries and the Amazon corporation, between now and ICANN 64, and directs the President and CEO to provide the Board with updates on the facilitation process in anticipation of revisiting the status of the .AMAZON applications at its meeting at ICANN64.

The vote came following ACTO’s demand that ICANN reverse its decision to take .amazon, and Chinese and Japanese translations, off their “Will Not Proceed” status, which heavily implied they will ultimately end up in the root.

ACTO, which claims its members have a greater right to the string due to its geographical and cultural significance, says it has not yet agreed to Amazon’s peace offering, which includes safeguards, financial support for future gTLD applications, and free Kindles.

The ICANN board has now formally rejected the demand — so .amazon is still officially on the path to delegation — but has published mountains of clarification explaining that ACTO misinterpreted what the status change implied.

The board now says that the status change was necessary in order for ICANN to negotiate the inclusion of Public Interest Commitments — PICs, which would give ACTO the right to challenge Amazon if it breaches any of its cultural safeguards — in the .amazon contracts.

With ACTO’s Request for Reconsideration now dealt with, the ball moves into ACTO’s court.

Will ACTO come back to the negotiating table, or will it retain the hard line it has been adopting for the last few months? We’ll find out before long.

Crunch Whois privacy talks kick off

Kevin Murphy, January 16, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN volunteers are meeting this week to attempt to finalize their recommendations on the future of Whois privacy.

Most members of the Expedited Policy Development Process working group have gathered in Toronto for three days of talks on what will likely become, in May this year, new contractually binding ICANN policy.

Discussions are kicking off pretty much at the same time this article is published and will last until Friday afternoon local time.

The EPDP group is due to publish its final report by February 1, leaving enough time for GNSO consideration, public comments, and an ICANN board of directors vote.

Its initial report, which recommended some big changes to Whois output, was published in November. Public comments on this report will lead to largely modest changes to the policy this week.

The timing is tight because Whois policy is currently governed by a one-year Temporary Specification, created by the ICANN board, which expires May 25.

The bulk of the work today will focus on formalizing the “purposes” of Whois data, something that is needed if ICANN policy is to be compliant with the EU General Data Protection Regulation.

The more controversial stuff, where consensus will be extraordinarily difficult to find, comes tomorrow, when the group discusses policies relating to privileged access to private Whois data.

This is the area where intellectual property and security interests, which want a program that enables them to get access to private data, have been clashing with non-commercial stakeholders, which accuse their opponents of advocating “surveillance”.

It’s not expected that a system of standardized, unified access will be created this week or by February 1. Rather, talks will focus on language committing ICANN to work on (or not) such a system in the near future.

Currently, there’s not even a consensus on what the definition of “consensus” is. It could be slow going.

Gluttons for punishment Observers can tune in to the view/listen-only Adobe Connect room for the meetings here.

How new gTLD auctions could kill gaming for good

Kevin Murphy, January 11, 2019, Domain Policy

Ever heard of a Vickrey auction? Me neither, but there’s a good possibility that it could become the way most new gTLD fights get resolved in future.

It’s one of several methods being proposed to help eliminate gaming in the next new gTLD application round that have received some support in a recently closed round of public comments.

ICANN’s New gTLD Subsequent Procedures working group (SubPro) is the volunteer effort currently writing the high-level rules governing future new gTLD applications.

Two months ago, it published a preliminary report exploring possible ways that contention sets could be resolved.

The current system, from the 2012 round, actively encourages applicants to privately resolve their sets. Usually, this entails a private auction in which the winning bid is shared evenly between the losing applicants.

This has been happening for the last five years, and a lot of money has been made.

Losing auctions can be a big money-spinner. Publicly traded portfolio registry MMX, for example, has so far made a profit of over $50 million losing private auctions, judging by its annual reports. It spent $13.5 million on application fees in 2012.

MMX is actually in the registry business, of course. But there’s a concern that its numbers will encourage gaming in future.

Companies could submit applications for scores of gTLDs they have no intention of actually operating, banking on making many multiples of their investment by losing private auctions.

Pointing no fingers, it’s very probably already happened. But what to do about it?

Who’s this Vickrey chap?

One suggestion that seems to be getting some love from diverse sections of the community is a variation of the “Vickrey auction”.

Named after the Canadian Nobel Prize-winning economist William Vickrey, it’s also called a “second price sealed bid auction”.

Basically, each applicant would secretly submit the maximum price they’d be willing to pay for the contested gTLD, and the applicant with the highest bid would pay the amount of the second-highest bid.

This method has, I believe, been used more than once in private contention resolution during the 2012 round.

But under the system suggested by SubPro, each applicant would make their single, sealed, high bid at time of application, before they know who else is gunning for the same string.

That way, contention sets could be mostly eliminated right at the start of the process, leading to time and cost efficiencies.

There’d be no need for every application in a contention set to go through full evaluation. Only the high bidder would be evaluated. If it failed evaluation, the second-highest bidder would go into evaluation, etc, until a successful applicant was found.

For losing applicants, a possible benefit of this is that they’d get much more of their application fees refunded, because they’d be skipping much of the process.

Neither would they have to bear the ambient running costs of sitting on their hands for potentially years while the ICANN process plays itself out.

It could also substantially speed up the next round. If the round has five, 10, 20 or more times as many applications as the 1,930 received in 2012, resolving contention sets at the very outset could cut literally years off processing times.

The SubPro concept also envisages that the winning bid (which is to say, the second-highest bid) would go directly into ICANN’s coffers, eliminating the incentive to game the system by losing auctions.

I must admit, there’s a lot to love about it. But it has drawbacks, and critics.

Why Vickrey may suck

SubPro itself notes that the Vickrey model it outlines would have to take into account other aspects of the new gTLD program, such as community applications, applicants seeking financial support from ICANN, and objections.

It also highlights concerns that bids submitted at the time of application constitute private business-plan information that applicants may not necessarily want ICANN staff seeing (with the revolving door, this info could quite easily end up at a competitor).

Companies and constituencies responding to the recent public comment period also have concerns.

There’s hesitance among some potential applicants about being asked to submit blind bids. There are clearly cases where an applicant would be prepared to pay more to keep a gTLD out of the hands of a competitor.

One could imagine, for example, that Coca-Cola would be ready to spend a lot more money on .cola if it knew Pepsi was also bidding, and possibly less if it were only up against Wolf Cola.

The Intellectual Property Constituency raised this concern. It said that it was open to the idea of Vickrey auctions, but that it preferred that bids should be submitted after all the applications in the contention set have been revealed, rather than at time of application:

Although there is a potential downside to this in that the parties have not put a “value” on the string in advance, the reality is that many factors come into play in assessing that “value”, certainly for a brand owner applicant and possibly for all applicants, including who the other parties are and how they have indicated they intend to use the TLD.

The Brand Registry Group and Neustar were both also against the Vickrey model outlined by SubPro, but neither explained their thinking.

The Business Constituency, which is often of a mind with the IPC, in this case differed. The BC said it agreed that bids should be submitted alongside applications, only to be unsealed in the event that there is contention. The BC said:

This Vickrey auction would also resolve contention sets very early in the application evaluation process. That saves contending applicants from spending years and significant sums during the contention resolution process, which was very difficult for small applicants.

It’s hard to gauge where current registries, which are of course also likely applicants, stand on Vickrey. The Registries Stakeholder Group is a pretty diverse bunch nowadays and it submitted a set of comments that, unhelpfully, flatly contradict each other.

“Some” RySG members believe that the current evaluation and contention process should stay in place, though they’re open to a Vickrey-style auction replacing the current ascending-clock model at the last-resort stage after all evaluations are complete.

“Other” RySG members, contrarily, wholeheartedly support the idea that bids should be submitted at the time of application and the auction processed, Vickrey-style, before evaluation.

“An application process which requires a thorough evaluation of an applicant who will not later be operating the gTLD is not an efficient process,” these “other” RySG members wrote. They added:

if contention sets are resolved after the evaluation process and not at the beginning of it, like the Vickery model suggestion, it would enable applicants who applied for multiple strings to increase the size of their future bids each time they lost an auction. Each TLD needs to be treated on its own merits with no contingencies allowed for applicants with numerous applications.

It’s not at all clear which registries fall into the “some” category and which into “other”, nor is it clear the respective size of each group.

Given the lack of substantive objections to pre-evaluation Vickrey auctions from the “some” camp, I rather suspect they’re the registries hoping to make money from private settlements in the next round.

Other ideas

Other anti-gaming ideas put forward by SubPro, which did not attract a lot of support, included:

  • A lottery. Contention sets would be settled by pulling an applicant’s name out of a hat.
  • An RFP process. This would mean comparative, merit-based evaluation, which has never been a popular idea in ICANN circles.
  • Graduated fees. Basically, applicants would pay more in application fees for each subsequent application they filed. This would disadvantage portfolio applicants, but could give smaller applicants a better shot at getting the string they want.

All of the comments filed on SubPro’s work has been fed back into the working group, where discussions about the next new gTLD round will soon enter their fourth year…