Afilias has applied to ICANN to have its ban on owning registrars in two of its own gTLDs, .mobi and .pro, lifted.
With requests to ICANN a few days ago (here and here), the company said it wants to be able to own more than 15% of an ICANN-accredited registrar that sells both TLDs, which is currently forbidden by the two Registry Agreements in question.
Afilias’ proposed new .info contract, which was renegotiated this year (because it expired) and closed for public comment last week, would also enable the company to vertically integrate with a .info registrar.
A process for relaxing the cross-ownership rules on a per-TLD basis was approved by ICANN’s board of directors last October.
The only registry so far to have its contractual ban lifted is puntCat, the .cat registry operator.
When an ICANN working group was discussing the vertical integration issue a couple of years ago, Afilias was one of the participants that held fast against any relaxation of the 15% ownership cap, eventually driving the working group into stalemate and forcing the ICANN board’s hand.
While we were busy focusing on ICANN 47 last week, six new gTLD Legal Rights Objections were decided by the World Intellectual Property Organization.
These are the objections where the objector has trademark rights that it believes would be infringed by the delegation of a matching or confusingly similar gTLD.
All six cases, like the first six, were rejected for varying reasons. There has yet to be a decision in favor of an objector.
Here’s a rundown of the highlights of the decisions:
.home (Defender Security v Lifestyle Domain Holdings)
.home (Defender Security v Merchant Law Group)
.home (Defender Security v Uniregistry)
These cases are three of the nine filed by .home applicant Defender Security against its rival applicants. Defender had already lost one such objection, and these three were no different.
Defender acquired its trademarks and associated domains and companies from Constantine Roussos’ CGR E-Commerce shortly before the new gTLD application window opened.
The trademarks themselves, attached to hastily created Go Daddy reseller web sites, were obtained not much earlier.
Uniregistry, paraphrased by the WIPO panelist in its case, put the situation pretty close to the truth:
Objector is one of several parties who were solicited some months ago to purchase any of a number of cookie-cutter European trademark documents lacking any substantial basis in actual goodwill or commerce, which were filed solely to game this process, and do not reflect a bona fide acquisition of substantial rights.
The WIPO panelists did not disagree, with two of them finding that not only were the acquisition of trademark rights not bona fide, but also that there was a question as to whether Defender even owned the trademark.
One panelist wrote of “the misleading and sometimes deceptive presentation of the evidence in the Objection, and more generally the abusive nature of the Objection” and another said:
The [LRO] Procedure is not intended to provide a facility whereby existing or prospective applicants for a new gTLD may attempt to gain an advantage over other applicants for the same gTLD by way of the deliberate acquisition of trademark rights for no purpose other than to bring a Legal Rights Objection. It has not escaped the Panel’s notice that the evidence before it indicates that the present Objection might have been motivated by just such an attempt
All three cases were rejected largely on this basis.
The panelist in the Lifestyle Domain Holdings case decided that acquisition of the trademarks had in fact been bona fide, but rejected the objection anyway on the overall LRO test of whether the proposed gTLD would take “unfair advantage” of Defender’s trademark rights, stating:
If anyone has taken “unfair advantage,” it has been the Objector through its meritless Objection. The LRO process is not meant to be a game or crap shoot; rather, it should be invoked only when the applicant’s proposed string would “infringe” trademark rights. It is an abuse of the process to invoke an LRO against an applicant whose proposed use is clearly a fair use of a string for its descriptive meaning and not a use designed to “infringe” (that is, cause confusion as to source, authorization or affiliation). What is “unfair” here is that the Objector filed an Objection that is not only completely devoid of merit, causing the Respondent to waste time and effort defending its entirely appropriate application, but also full of misleading, deceptive, and demonstrably untrue statements and omissions
With the Roussos/Defender gaming strategy thus comprehensively trashed, I can only hope for Defender’s sake that there’s opportunity left for it to withdraw its remaining objections and ask for a refund.
.mail (United States Postal Service v Amazon)
Amazon is one of the many applicants for .mail, while USPS is the United States’ longstanding government-backed postal service and not an applicant.
USPS showed that it owned a wide array of trademarks that include the word “mail”, but not any for the word alone, and argued that internet users expect “mail” to mean the US mail.
Amazon said that the word is generic and that USPS is not the only organization to incorporate it in its trademarks.
Amazon said (ironically, given its intention to operate .mail as a closed generic) that USPS “improperly seeks to take the dictionary word ‘mail’ out of the English language for its exclusive use”.
The decision to reject the complaint hinged on whether USPS even has rights in .mail.
The WIPO panelist decided: “The fact that a nation’s postal system is vested by statute or otherwise associated with a single entity does not convert the generic term into a trademark.”
USPS has filed six more LROs against the other six .mail applicants, two of which have been terminated due to application withdrawals. We can only assume that the remaining four are also likely to fail.
.pin (Pinterest v Amazon)
Amazon is the only applicant for .pin. Again, it’s a closed generic for which the company has not explained its plans.
The objector, Pinterest, is a wildly popular photo-sharing service provider start-up, funded to the sum of $100 million by Amazon’s Japanese retail rival Rakuten.
It owns a US trademark for “Pinterest” and has applied for many more for “Pin” and “Pin It”.
The panelist, in ruling against Pinterest, decided that Pinterest, despite its popularity, failed to show that the dictionary word “pin” had acquired a secondary meaning beyond its usual descriptive sense.
.mls (Canadian Real Estate Association v. Afilias)
MLS, for readers based outside North America, means “multiple listing services”. It’s used by estate agents when aggregating lists of properties for sale.
The Canadian Real Estate Association — which has applied for .mls TWICE, one as a community once as a regular applicant — has owned a Canadian “certification mark” on the term “MLS” since 1960.
A substantial portion of the decision is devoted to examining whether this counts as a trademark for the purposes of an LRO, with the panelist deciding that “ownership of a certification trademark must confer the status of ‘rightsholder’.”
The case was therefore decided on the eight criteria specified for the LRO in the ICANN Applicant Guidebook. The panelist concluded:
The Panel cannot see the justification for refusing to allow the Applicant to operate in every country because the Objector has a certification mark for a generic term in Canada. Had the Objector’s certification been other than a generic term, its case might have been stronger but MLS it is a generic term used in English-speaking jurisdictions.
The decision cited the .rightathome case, in which the decision hinged on whether the new gTLD applicant had any nefarious intent in applying for the string in question.
A body of precedent seems to be emerging holding that a new gTLD application must be somewhat akin to a cybersquatting attempt in order for an objector to win.
While this may be fair, I think a likely impact is an increase in the number of dot-brand applications in future rounds, particularly in cases where the brand matches a dictionary word or collides with another trademark.
We’ve yet to see what a successful LRO looks like, but the standard appears to be high indeed.
Afilias has started accepting expressions of interest on the 30 new gTLDs it has applied for.
A basic site launched today invites potential registrants to indicate which names they’d like to register in future and submit their email address for updates.
As usual, it’s free, no obligation, and provides more value to the registry than the registrant.
The strings covered are:
.移动 (info), .信息 (mobi), .DESI, .APP, .HEALTH, .LTD, .KIM, .BLUE, .PINK, .LOTTO, .MLS, .LGBT, .BLOG, .GREEN, .INC, .TEAM, .SHIKSHA, .MEMORIAL, .RADIO, .BET, .RED, .WINE, .LLC, .WEB, .ORGANIC, .MEET, .PET, .BLACK, .CASINO, .POKER, .VOTE, .VOTO
Many of these gTLDs are still contested and some haven’t yet passed Initial Evaluation, so the list may dwindle as time goes by.
One down, only 306 to go! Donuts has withdrawn its application for the .vote new gTLD, leaving an Afilias joint venture as the sole remaining applicant, it emerged today.
It’s reasonable to assume that this is the first result of the private string auctions, designed by Cramton Associates, that are being run by Innovative Auctions this week.
Donuts had submitted .vote to this auction and has previously said that auctions were its preferred method of resolving contention sets.
Either way, the winner of the contention set is Monolith Registry, a joint venture of .info registry Afilias and two individual investors based in Utah.
Monolith is also the only applicant for the Spanish translation, .voto.
It’s the first example of a contention set between competing business models being resolved.
The result tells us a lot about how money talks in the new gTLD program and how it does not evaluate applications based on criteria such as inclusiveness or innovation.
Donuts had proposed a .vote with an open registration policy and no special purpose. People would have been able to register domains there for essentially any reason.
Afilias, on the other hand, intends to tightly restrict its .vote to “official and verified governments and office seekers” in only the United States.
Remarkably, it has the same US-only policy for the Spanish-language .voto, though both applications suggest that eligibility will be expanded to other countries in future.
Cybersquatting is not infrequent in electioneering, so .vote could give voters a way to trust that the web site they visit really does contain the opinions of the candidate.
Pricing is expected to be set at $60 “for the first year” ($100 for .voto), and Afilias reckons there are upwards of one million elected officials and candidates that would qualify for the names in the US alone.
It’s a potentially lucrative business, in other words.
But did the program produce an ideal result here?
Is it better that .vote carries a high price and will be restricted to American politicians? Is it right that other, non-governmental types of voting will be excluded from the TLD?
Or does the result show that the program can produce innovative uses of TLDs? With a couple of restricted namespaces, where voters and politicians can trust the authenticity of the contents (insert politicians-are-liars joke here) is Afilias adding value to the internet?
These types of questions are going to be asked over and over again as more contention set results emerge.
Afilias and Neustar will be soon able to sell .biz and .info domains direct, and may have to shut down registrars that refuse to sign up to the new 2013 Registrar Accreditation Agreement.
Those are two of the biggest changes proposed to the companies’ ICANN contracts, drafts of which were published this morning six months after their last registry agreements expired.
The new .biz and .info deals would allow both companies to vertically integrate — that is, own a controlling position in a registrar that sells domains in their respective gTLDs.
This would remove unwanted friction from their sales and marketing efforts, but would mean both registries would start competing with their own registrar channel in the retail market.
That’s currently not allowed in almost all gTLD contracts, but is expected to become commonplace in the era of new gTLDs, which have no such ownership restrictions.
These new vertical integration clauses were not unexpected; it’s been envisaged for a couple of years that the restrictions would be dropped in legacy gTLDs.
What is surprising are newly proposed clauses that would oblige Neustar and Afilias to terminate accredited registrars’ access to their TLDs if they don’t sign up to the 2013 RAA.
Under the process set out in the contracts, when registrars representing 67% of the domains in each given TLD have signed up to the 2013 RAA, all the other registrars would have between 270 and 330 days to also sign up to it or lose their ability to access the .biz/.info registries.
That would mean no selling new names and no accepting inbound transfers — a growth death sentence in the affected TLDs.
In the case of .info, in which Go Daddy has a 45% market share, it would only take the top four registrars to sign up to the 2013 RAA before the clock started ticking for the others.
However, this 67% rule would only kick in for Afilias and Neustar if Public Interest Registry and Verisign also voluntarily agree to the same rules for their .org, .com and .net gTLDs.
It’s a pretty aggressive move by ICANN to push the 2013 RAA onto registrars via its contracts with registries, but not the first.
In the separately proposed base New gTLD Registry Agreement, expected to be finalized in the next few weeks, registrars can only sell new gTLD domains if they’re on the 2013 RAA.
Other changes to the .biz and .info contracts include giving the registries the ability to block certain domains from registration to deal with security threats. Registries have been doing this since Conficker, but now they’ll be explicitly allowed to under their contracts.
They’ll also now be subject to the same emergency back-end transition provisions as new gTLDs, in the event of a catastrophic failure.
Both companies will also get to keep their ability to raise registry fees by 10% a year.
Presumably, given that the US Department of Commerce is not party to the .biz and .info deals, neither registry will get the same nasty surprise that Verisign got last year when Commerce froze its prices.
The previous contracts actually expired last December but were extended for six months due to ICANN’s focus on new gTLDs and the fact that it wanted to bring both agreements closer to the new gTLD contract.