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Facebook, under Chinese court threat, transfers Instagram.com to its new registrar

Kevin Murphy, April 19, 2016, Domain Registrars

It’s not quite cyberflight, but Facebook has transferred threatened domain name instagram.com to its newly acquired in-house registrar.

Whois records show that the domain, used for the popular photo-sharing social network, was moved from MarkMonitor to RegistrarSEC yesterday.

It emerged on Friday that Facebook had recently acquired RegistrarSEC.

So why the transfer?

It does not appear that the move is part of a wholesale transfer of domains — facebook.com, whatsapp.com, fb.com and all the other Facebook domains I checked are still with MarkMonitor.

Instead, I would speculate that it’s related to the lawsuit in China in which the family of a deceased cybersquatter are fighting for the return of the domain to their ownership.

Instagram acquired the name for $100,000 from the Guangdong-based Zhou family in January 2011, just a couple of months after Zhou Weiming, the now deceased patriarch, bought it from an American domainer.

According to a lawsuit (pdf) filed against the family in California by Instagram this January, Zhou’s widow and two daughters are suing the third daughter in a Chinese court for selling the domain without the proper authority.

They want the domain returned to them.

By transferring instagram.com to a registrar completely controlled by Facebook, the company has removed one huge risk factor from the Chinese lawsuit.

If MarkMonitor were to be served with a Chinese court order ordering the transfer of the domain to the Zhous, and it were to comply, the Instagram service used by millions could be held hostage by a group of known cybersquatters.

Now that the domain is at RegistrarSEC, Facebook gets the ability to refuse to comply with any such order.

This all begs the question of whether the deep-pocketed social network would go to the trouble of acquiring a registrar (with only 11 names to its accreditation) purely to provide a layer of insurance.

A fresh ICANN accreditation would be cheaper, but would take longer, and transferring to a different third-party registrar wouldn’t really solve the problem.

Instagram is predicted by one analyst to provide Facebook with $5.8 billion in annual revenue by the end of the decade.

Instagram paid Chinese cyberquatter $100,000 for instagram.com, Facebook lawsuit reveals

Kevin Murphy, January 20, 2016, Domain Sales

Facebook has sued a Chinese cybersquatter for trying to renege on a five-year-old deal that saw it buy the domain instagram.com for $100,000.

The lawsuit, filed in California last week, claims that a family of known cybersquatters, based in Guangdong, is trying to have the purchase invalidated by a Chinese court.

The company, which acquired Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, wants the court to rule that the domain deal was legal, preventing the cybersquatters retaking control of the domain.

Photo-sharing app Instagram launched in October 2010 using the domain instagr.am.

At that time, instagram.com was owned by a US-based domain investor, but it was bought by Zhou Weiming about a month later.

Zhou, Facebook says, was the now-dead father of three of the people it is suing, and the husband of the fourth.

When Zhou purchased the domain, Instagram had become wildly popular, well on the way to hitting the million-user mark in December 2010.

Instagram had applied for the US trademark on its name in September 2010, less than a month before its launch.

The company made the decision to pay $100,000 for the domain in January 2011.

The Whois information for instagram.com changed from Zhou Weiming to Zhou Murong, apparently his daughter, around about the same time, though the registrant email address did not change.

The purchase was processed by Sedo, according to a copy of the deal filed as evidence (pdf).

Now, Murong’s mother and sisters are suing her and Instagram in China, claiming she did not have the authority to sell the domain, according to Facebook’s complaint.

Facebook claims the Chinese suit is a “sham” and that the whole Zhou family is acting in concert.

The company wants the California court to declare that the sale was valid, and that registrar MarkMonitor should not be forced to transfer the domain back to the Zhous.

Facebook in 2014 won a 22-domain UDRP case against Murong Zhou, related to typos of its Instagram trademark.

Read the full California complaint as a PDF here.

Does .tickets have the ultimate anti-cybersquatting system?

Kevin Murphy, January 19, 2016, Domain Registries

I’ve never seen anything like this before.

.tickets gTLD registry Accent Media has launched an anti-cybersquatting measure that lets the world know who is trying to register what domain name a whole month before the domain is allowed to go live.

The service, at domains.watch, is currently only being used by .tickets, but it seems to be geared up to accept other TLDs too.

A spokesperson said the site soft-launched a couple months ago.

Today, if you want to register a .tickets domain name, you have a choice of two processes — “fast-track” or “standard”.

Fast-track is for organizations with trademarks matching their names. It take five days for the trademark to be verified and the domain to go live.

Standard-track applications, however, are published on domains.watch for 30 days before the the registration is fully processed (under the registry hood, the domain are kept in “Pending Create” status).

Domains.Watch

During that 30 days, anyone with a trademark they believe would be infringed by the domain may file a challenge against the registration. They have to pay a fee to do so.

The would-be registrant can counter by showing their own rights. If they have no documented rights, the challenger gets the name instead.

“Rights” in the case of .tickets means a trademark or evidence of use of a mark in a ticketing-related context.

While it’s certainly not unusual in the industry for restricted TLDs to manually vet their registrants before processing a registration, I’ve never before come across a registry that does it all in public, allowing basically anyone — or, at least, anyone who is willing to pay the challenge fee — to challenge any registration.

Can you imagine what the domain world would be like if this kind of system were commonplace across a range of TLDs?

A lot of people outside the industry — particularly in security, I fancy — would love it.

Top 2015 new gTLD sale looks like cybersquatting

Kevin Murphy, January 8, 2016, Domain Sales

One of the top secondary market domain sales of 2015, as reported by Sedo, appears to be a case of somebody selling a domain matching a trademark to the trademark’s owner.

According to a press release yesterday, the domain basic-fit.fitness was the third-priciest reportable new gTLD domain sale handled by Sedo last year.

It went for €7,949 ($8,634).

Given that it’s not intrinsically an attractive-looking domain, I tried to figure out why it sold.

Judging by Whois records, the buyer is the corporate owner of Basic-Fit, a chain of over 300 gyms in four European countries.

It has at least one trademark on “Basic-Fit”.

The original registrant, according to records cached by DomainTools, was a Belgian web designer.

The domain seems to have changed hands around May last year. In April, it spent a couple of weeks under Whois privacy.

The domain was registered August 27, 2014, the day .fitness exited its Early Access Period and domains were available at regular prices.

It seems the same Belgian web designer owns several more new gTLD domain names matching brands that are parked with Sedo and available to buy instantly.

Many are .immo (“.realestate”) domains matching the brands of Belgian real estate firms. There are also a few .beer domains under his name matching the brands of breweries and beers in the UK, US and Czech Republic.

It’s not unheard of for web developers to register domains on behalf of clients. It’s rather less common for them to then list them for sale, with buy-now prices, on domain marketplaces.

Looks dodgy to me.

TLS says .feedback will be “UDRP-proof”, will hire lawyers to defend registrants

Kevin Murphy, December 21, 2015, Domain Services

Top Level Spectrum plans to make its .feedback domains dirt cheap for domainers during its forthcoming Early Access Period, and is claiming that its domains will be “UDRP-proof”.

CEO Jay Westerdal told DI today that the registry will even hire lawyers to defend its registrants if and when UDRP cases arise.

The company has also introduced a new $5,000 “claims” service that is guaranteed to drive the intellectual property community nuts.

.feedback is shaping up to be one of the most fascinating new gTLD launches to date.

The company’s original plan, to sell 5,000 trademark-match domains to a single entity after its sunrise period ends has been tweaked.

Now, it will instead offer huge rebates during its Early Access Period next month, which will bring the price to registrants down from as much as $1,815 to as little as $5.

It’s called the “Free Speech Partner Program”.

To qualify for the program rebate, registrants will have to agree to stick to using TLS’s specially designated name servers, which point to a hosted feedback service managed by the registry.

An example of such a site can be seen at donaldtrump.feedback, which is among several US presidential candidate names TLS has registered to itself recently.

That commitment will be passed on if the domain ever changes hands, and a $5,000 fee will be applicable if the registrant wants to switch to their own name servers.

A registry charging a lower fee during EAP than GA is unheard of, but that’s what TLS is planning.

Rebates will not be available during the first three days of EAP, which starts January 6 at $14,020 per name. Days two and three see domains priced at $7,020 and $3,520.

From January 9 to January 18, rebates will bring the prices down to $5 per domain.

That’s a quarter of the $20 registry fee it plans to charge during general availability.

“Our plan is to sell thousands of domains before normal GA,” Westerdal said.

“It is a great opportunity for domainers to register domains that will be UDRP proof,” he said. “As free speech sites they are going to improve the world and let anyone read reviews on any subject.”

“I think they are UDRP proof,” he said. “As a registry we will hire lawyers to fight cases that arise.”

Asked to confirm that TLS would pay for lawyers to defend its registrants in UDRP cases, he said: “Hell yes we will.”

The registry plans to give trademark owners a way to avoid UDRP, however, if they’re willing to pay $5,000 for the privilege.

“Free Speech” registrants will have to agree not only to use TLS’s feedback platform, but also to allow the owners of trademarks matching their domains to more or less unilaterally seize those domains for up to two years after registration.

This “claims period” is also unprecedented in new gTLD launches. It’s described like this:

The registry will accept trademarks for a period of 2 years after the initial registration on a “Free Speech Partner Program” domains. The cost is $5,000 to have the mark validated, if the trademark is found to be the first to successfully make a claim against a domain in the program the domain will be transferred to the mark holder. The mark holder will be allowed to change name servers and is not subject to the “Free Speech Partner Program” terms of service.

Domain registrants of the “Free Speech Partner Program” agree the outcome of a validated mark by the Registry have no further claim to the domain if it is transferred to a new registrant.

If TLS is trying to design a system that will enrage the trademark community to the maximum extent possible, it’s doing a fantastic job.

It even introduced a new clause (2.9, here) to its registration agreement earlier this month, obliging registrants to point their domains to a web page that collects feedback. That means nobody will be allowed to leave their .feedback domains dark.

Are these measures justifiable disincentives, or plain old extortion? Opinion will no doubt be split along the usual lines.