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Yes, there is cybersquatting in new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, February 6, 2014, Domain Policy

With new TLDs, comes cybersquatting. It’s inevitable. And it’s also true of the new gTLDs that hit general availability this week.

The question of what is or is not cybersquatting is best left to a judge or UDRP panel, of course, but I’ve already come across plenty of newly registered domains that I do not believe would pass the UDRP test.

Sifting through select Whois records of domains that were registered in Donuts’ first seven gTLDs over the last few days, and without leaving the A’s, I’ve found the likes of: adidas.clothing, americanapparel.clothing, akamai.guru, americanexpress.guru. appleservice.guru and accenture.ventures.

Delving a little deeper into .clothing, I see the likes of kanyewest.clothing, ralphlauren.clothing, kardashiankollection.clothing, lauraashley.clothin, michaeljordan.clothing and more.

One Los Angeles clothing store appears to have registered several .clothing domains matching brands it does not own, possibly unaware that such behavior is frowned upon.

While there could be legitimate uses of the names I’ve highlighted here, possibly, they all appear to me to be registered to people unaffiliated with the referenced brands or celebrities.

I found more that are registered behind Whois privacy services, where it’s not possible to tell whether the domain belongs to the brand or not. Domains such as ibm.guru and ibm.ventures use Whois privacy, yet resolve to the IBM web site.

Cases of obvious UDRP losses seem to be few and far between, however. The vast majority of domains registered in these new gTLDs this week seem to be straightforward generic terms.

While I’m using the UDRP sniff test to highlight domains I feel may be cybersquatting, there’s a new process in town when it comes to disputes: the faster, cheaper Uniform Rapid Suspension policy.

URS has a higher burden of proof — “clear and convincing evidence” of bad faith registration and use — and it’s not yet clear how panelists will handle these cases.

There’s only been one URS case to date, that of facebok.pw, in which the domain was suspended following a complaint by Facebook.

In that case, Facebook was able to show bad faith by presenting the panelist with a list of other typo domains the respondent had registered.

Extortion.sucks — Vox Pop CEO defends “under-priced” $25,000 sunrise fee

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2013, Domain Registries

Vox Populi Registry, the .sucks new gTLD applicant backed by Momentous Corp, is to charge trademark owners $25,000 to participate in its Sunrise period, should it win the TLD.

Not only that, but it’s become the first new gTLD applicant that I’m aware of to start taking pre-registration fees from trademark owners while it’s still in a contention set with other applicants.

At first glance, it looks like plain old trademark-owner extortion, taken to an extreme we’ve never seen before.

But after 45 minutes talking to Vox Pop CEO John Berard this evening, I’m convinced that it’s worse than that.

The company is setting itself up as the IP lobby’s poster child for everything that is wrong with the new gTLD program.

If Vox Pop wins the .sucks contention set — it’s competing against Donuts and Top Level Spectrum — it plans to charge trademark owners $25,000 to participate in Sunrise and $25,000 a year thereafter.

Registrations during general availability, whether they match a trademark or not, will cost $300 a year.

During the pre-registration period, the Sunrise fee is $2,500 and the “Priority Reservation” fee is $250.

The Sunrise fee is, I believe, higher than any sunrise fee in any TLD ever to launch.

But Berard said that he believes Vox Pop’s .sucks proposition is, if anything, “under-priced”.

“Most companies spend far more than $25,000 a month on a public relations agency, most companies spend more than $25,000 a month on a Google ad campaign,” he said.

“Companies spend millions of dollars a year on customer service. We view .sucks as an element of customer service on the part of companies,” he said.

Berard, a 40-year veteran of the public relations business, said that he believes .sucks represents an opportunity for brands to engage with their customers, gaining valuable insight that could help them improve product development or customer service.

“The last thing I view .sucks as is a domain name. That’s the last value proposition for .sucks,” he said. “The primary value proposition is as a key and innovative part of customer service, retention and loyalty.”

It’s about giving companies “the ability to bring internet criticism and commentary out of the shadows and into the light” and “an opportunity to actually have a legitimate ability to correct misconceptions and engage, in much the way they’re doing now with Facebook”, he said.

It’s all about helping companies create a dialogue, in other words.

But Berard said that Vox Pop does not intend to launch any value-added services on .sucks domains.

While a domain name may be the “last value proposition” of .sucks, it is also the only thing that Vox Pop is actually planning to sell.

Asked to justify the $25,000 Sunrise fee, at first Berard pointed to policies that he said will ensure a transparent space for conversation.

“A company might not have to register its brand in .sucks, because if someone else does the policies and practices that we hope to deploy give that company a transparent opportunity to participate,” Berard said. “There’s no chasing unknown people down dark alleys for unfounded criticism. It will all be done in the light of day.”

“We have built-in policies that prevent sites from being parked pages,” he said. “The site must be put to that use — of customer service — whether you are the company that owns [the brand] or a customer that wants to complain about it.”

There was some confusion during our conversation about what the policies are going to be.

At first it sounded like companies would be obliged to run criticism/conversation sites targeting their own brands or risk losing their domains, but Berard later called to clarify that while pages cannot be parked under the policy, they can be left inactive.

It will be possible, in other words, for a company to register its brand.sucks and leave the associated site dark.

The registry would also have an “authenticated Whois database”, he said, though it would allow registrants to use privacy services.

There would also be prohibitions on cyber-bullying and porn in .sucks, if Vox Pop wins it. It has committed to these policies in its Public Interest Commitments (pdf)

But the company does not appear to be doing anything that ICM Registry did not already do when it launched .xxx a couple of years ago, when it comes to making brand owners’ lives easier.

In fact, it’s planning to do a lot less, while being literally a hundred times more expensive.

By contrast, if Donuts wins .sucks, brand owners will be able to defensively block their marks using the Domain Protected Marks List for $3,000 over five years, which would cover all of Donuts 200-300 new gTLDs.

There doesn’t appear to be any good reason Vox Pop is charging prices well above the market rate, in my view, other than the fact that the company reckons it can get away with it.

In what may well be a deliberate move to put pressure on trademark owners, Vox Pop is also the first registry I’ve encountered to say it will do a 30-day, as opposed to a 60-day, Sunrise period.

Under ICANN rules, registries have to give at least 30 days warning before a 30-day Sunrise starts, but once it’s underway they are allowed to allocate domains on a first-come-first-served basis.

All of the 30-odd registries currently in Sunrise have opted for the traditional 60-day option instead, where no domains are allocated until the end of the period.

There’s also the question of accepting Sunrise pre-registrations before Vox Pop even knows whether it will get to run .sucks.

There are two other applicants and Berard said that he reckons the contention set is likely to go to an ICANN last-resort auction.

Judging by ICANN’s preliminary timetable, the .sucks auction wouldn’t happen until roughly September next year, by my reckoning.

Anyone who pre-registers today will have to wait a year before they can use (or not) their domain, if they even get to register it at all.

Any money that is taken during the pre-reg period will be refunded if Vox Pop fails to launch.

In the meantime, it will be sitting in Momentous’ bank account where the company, presumably, will be able to use it to try to win the .sucks auction.

Trademark owners, in my view, should vote with their wallets and stay the hell away from Vox Pop’s pre-registration service.

I’m not usually in the business of endorsing one new gTLD applicant over another, but I think Vox Pop’s Sunrise pricing is going to make the whole new gTLD program — and probably also ICANN and the domain name industry itself — look bad.

It’s a horrible reminder of a time when domain name companies were often little better than spammers, operating at the margins and beyond of acceptable conduct, and it makes me sad.

The new gTLD program is about increasing choice and competition in the TLD space, it’s not supposed to be about applicants bilking trademark owners for whatever they think they can get away with.

TMCH extends Trademark Claims indefinitely, kinda

Kevin Murphy, December 11, 2013, Domain Services

The Trademark Clearinghouse is to give the intellectual property lobby something that it’s been crying out for for years — an indefinite extension of parts of the Trademark Claims service.

And it’s going to be free.

Trademark Claims is a mandatory service for all new gTLD operators, sending pre-registration warnings to registrants and post-registration alerts to mark owners whenever a domain matching a trademark is registered.

But it only runs for 90 days, per the ICANN new gTLD contracts, which TMCH project director Jan Corstens said is IP owners’ “number one complaint” about the system.

So the TMCH is going to extend the post-registration alerts half of the service indefinitely.

When the first new gTLDs officially end their Claims periods next year, the TMCH will continue to send out alerts to mark owners (or, in 90% of cases, their registrar “agents”) when matching domains are registered.

Would-be registrants will only receive their pre-registration warnings for the original 90-day period.

Corstens said that the pre-registration side of Claims would only be possible with the cooperation of registries and registrars, and that there’s a lot of reluctance to help out.

“A lot of them are not really interested in doing that,” he said. “I understand it takes work, and I understand they think it could demotivate potential registrants.”

Trademark owners that have directly registered with the Clearinghouse, rather than going through an agent, will get the extended service for no added charge.

However, Corstens made it clear that the TMCH is not trying to compete with registrars — such as MarkMonitor and Melbourne IT — that already offer zone file monitoring services to trademark owners.

“We know the market exists,” he said. “It’s not our intention to become a monopoly. We will deliver it to them, of course, and assume they can integrate with it.”

Agents will be able to plug the service into their existing products if they wish, he said.

There are a few initial limitations with the new TMCH service such that its registrar agents may not find it particularly labor-saving.

First, only domains that exactly match labels in the Clearinghouse will generate alerts.

By contrast, brand-monitoring registrars typically generate alerts when the trademark is a substring of the domain. To carry on doing this they’ll need to carry on monitoring zone files anyway.

Second, the TMCH service only currently covers new gTLDs applied for in the 2012 round. It doesn’t cover .com, for example, or any other legacy gTLD.

Corstens said both of these limitations may be addressed in future releases. The first Trademark Claims period isn’t due to end until March, so there’s time to make changes, he said.

He added that he hopes the extension of Claims will lead to an uptick in the the number of trademarks being registered in the TMCH. Currently there are about 20,000.

First URS case decided with Facebook the victor

Kevin Murphy, October 25, 2013, Domain Policy

Facebook has become the first company to win a Uniform Rapid Suspension complaint.

The case, which dealt with the domain facebok.pw, took 37 days from start to finish.

This is what the suspended site now looks like:

The URS was designed for new gTLDs, but .PW Registry decided to adopt it too, to help it deal with some of the abuse it started to experience when it launched earlier this year.

Facebook was the first to file a complaint, on August 21. According to the decision, the case commenced about three weeks later, September 11, and was decided September 26.

I don’t know when the decision was published, but World Trademark Review appears to have been the first to spot it.

It was pretty much a slam-dunk, uncontroversial decision, as you might imagine given the domain. The standard is “clear and convincing evidence”, a heavier burden than UDRP.

The registrant did not respond to the complaint, but Facebook provided evidence showing he was a serial cybersquatter.

The decision was made by the National Arbitration Forum’s Darryl Wilson, who has over 100 UDRP cases under his belt. Here’s the meat of it:

IDENTICAL OR CONFUSINGLY SIMILAR

The only difference between the Domain Name, facebok.pw, and the Complainant’s FACEBOOK mark is the absence of one letter (“o”) in the Domain Name. In addition, it is well accepted that the top level domain is irrelevant in assessing identity or confusing similarity, thus the “.pw” is of no consequence here. The Examiner finds that the Domain Name is confusingly similar to Complainant’s FACEBOOK mark.

NO RIGHTS OR LEGITIMATE INTERESTS

To the best of the Complainant’s knowledge, the Respondent does not have any rights in the name FACEBOOK or “facebok” nor is the Respondent commonly known by either name. Complainant has not authorized Respondent’s use of its mark and has no affiliation with Respondent. The Domain Name points to a web page listing links for popular search topics which Respondent appears to use to generate click through fees for Respondent’s personal financial gain. Such use does not constitute a bona fide offering of goods or services and wrongfully misappropriates Complainant’s mark’s goodwill. The Examiner finds that the Respondent has established no rights or legitimate interests in the Domain Name.

BAD FAITH REGISTRATION AND USE
The Domain Name was registered and is being used in bad faith.

The Domain Name was registered on or about March 26, 2013, nine years after the Complainant’s FACEBOOK marks were first used and began gaining global notoriety.

The Examiner finds that the Respondent has engaged in a pattern of illegitimate domain name registrations (See Complainant’s exhibit URS Site Screenshot) whereby Respondent has either altered letters in, or added new letters to, well-known trademarks. Such behavior supports a conclusion of Respondent’s bad faith registration and use. Furthermore, the Complainant submits that the Respondent is using the Domain Name in order to attract for commercial gain Internet users to its parking website by creating a likelihood of confusion as to the source, sponsorship or affiliation of the website. The Examiner finds such behavior to further evidence Respondent’s bad faith registration and use.

The only remedy for URS is suspension of the domain. According to Whois, it still belongs to the respondent.

Read the decision in full here.

Donuts’ trademark block list goes live, pricing revealed

Kevin Murphy, September 25, 2013, Domain Registries

Donuts’ Domain Protected Marks List, which gives trademark owners the ability to defensively block their marks across the company’s whole portfolio of gTLDs, has gone live.

The service goes above and beyond what new gTLD registries are obliged to offer by ICANN.

As a “block” service, in which names will not resolve, it’s reminiscent of the Sunrise B service offered by ICM Registry at .xxx’s launch, which was praised and cursed in equal measure.

But with DPML, trademark owners also have the ability to block “trademark+keyword” names, for example, so Pepsi could block “drinkpepsi” or “pepsisucks”.

It’s not a wildcard, however. Companies would have to pay for each trademark+keyword string they wanted blocking.

DPML covers all of the gTLDs that Donuts plans to launch, which could be as many as 300. It currently has 28 registry agreements with ICANN and 272 applications remaining in various stages of evaluation.

Trademark owners will only be able to sign up to DPML if their marks are registered with the Trademark Clearinghouse under the “use” standard required to participate in Sunrise periods.

Donuts is also excluding an unspecified number of strings it regards as “premium”, so the owners of marks matching those strings will be out of luck, it seems.

Blocks will be available for a minimum of five years an maximum of 10 years. After expiration, they can be renewed with minimum terms of one year.

The company has not disclose its wholesale pricing, but registrars we’ve found listing the service on their web sites so far (101domain and EnCirca) price it between $2,895 and $2,995 for a five-year registration.

It looks pricey, but it’s likely to be extraordinarily good value compared to the alternative of Sunrise periods.

If Donuts winds up with 200 gTLDs in its portfolio, a $3,000 price tag ($600 per year) works out to a defensive registration cost of $3 per domain per gTLD per year.

If it winds up with all 300, the price would be $2.

That’s in line (if we’re assuming non-budget pricing comparisons and registrars’ DPML markup), with Donuts co-founder Richard Tindal’s statement earlier this year: that DPML would be 5% to 10% the cost of a regular registration.

Tindal also spoke then about a way for rival trademark owners to “unblock” matching names, so Apple the record company could unblock a DPML on apple.music obtained by Apple the computer company, for example.

Donuts is encouraging trademark owners to participate before its first gTLDs goes live, which it expects to happen later this year.

ICANN to crack down on UDRP “cyberflight”

Kevin Murphy, August 2, 2013, Domain Registrars

ICANN has moved closer to cracking down on cybersquatters who try to flip their domains when they discover they’ve been hit with a UDRP complaint.

Under recommendations approved by the GNSO Council yesterday, registrars would be bound by a much stricter set of UDRP-related domain locking rules in future.

So-called “cyberflight” — where squatters transfer their domains to a new registrar or registrants — appears to be a relatively infrequent problem, but when it does happen it causes big headaches for UDRP providers and trademark owners.

A survey of UDRP providers carried out as part of the GNSO’s policy development process discovered that the vast majority of registrars already lock domains hit by UDRP.

The problem is, they said, that locking practices are not uniform. Some registrars take well over a week to lock domains, and what the “lock” entails differs by registrar.

The recommendations of the GNSO’s Final Report on the Locking of a Domain Name Subject to UDRP Proceedings Policy Development Process, adopted by the Council yesterday, seek to standardize the process.

After being told about a complaint against one of its domains, the registrar in future would have a maximum of two business days to put a lock — preventing any changes in registrant or registrar — in place.

The lock would remain until the UDRP was resolved, but there would be various safeguards in place to enable complainants and respondents to settle their differences outside of the UDRP.

The lock would not prevent registrars or proxy/privacy services revealing the true identity of the registrant — that wouldn’t count as a change of registrant.

To prevent registrants abusing the two-day window to sell their domains or switch registrars, they would not be told about the existence of the UDRP until the domain had been locked.

The UDRP rules currently require the complainant to send a copy of their complaint to the domain owner at the same time it is filed with the UDRP provider.

But the GNSO has now recommended getting rid of this rule, stating: “as a best practice, complainants need not inform respondents that a complaint has been filed to avoid cyberflight.”

The registrant would be informed later by the UDRP provider instead.

Registrars would be prohibited from tipping off the registrant until the lock was in place.

The July 2013 recommendations (pdf) came out of a working group that was formed in April 2012, in response to policy ideas floated in 2011.

The GNSO’s resolution calls for ICANN staff to work with members of the working group on an implementation plan, which would eventually be put to the ICANN board for approval.

Once through the board, the new policy would become binding on all ICANN-accredited registrars.

ICANN won’t say how Demand Media passed its new gTLD background check

After badgering ICANN for a few weeks, I’ve finally got a firm “no comment” on the question of how new gTLD applicant Demand Media managed to pass its background checks.

The question of whether it’s possible for serial cybersquatters to bypass ICANN screening and be awarded new gTLDs just by setting up shell companies is still open, it seems.

As DI and other blogs have been reporting for the past few years, there was a question mark over Demand Media’s eligibility for the new gTLD program due to its history of cybersquatting.

Under ICANN rules, any company that lost three or more UDRP decisions with at least one loss in the last three years would not pass its background screening. The Applicant Guidebook states:

In the absence of exceptional circumstances, applications from any entity with or including any individual with convictions or decisions of the types listed in (a) – (m) below will be automatically disqualified from the program.

m. has been involved in a pattern of adverse, final decisions indicating that the applicant or individual named in the application was engaged in cybersquatting as defined in the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP), the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA), or other equivalent legislation, or was engaged in reverse domain name hijacking under the UDRP or bad faith or reckless disregard under the ACPA or other equivalent legislation. Three or more such decisions with one occurring in the last four years will generally be considered to constitute a pattern.

Demand Media subsidiary Demand Domains has lost over 30 UDRP cases, most recently in 2011, but its United TLD Holdco subsidiary has sailed through its Initial Evaluations.

Technically, shouldn’t it have failed screening and therefore IE?

Domain Name Wire speculated in November 2010 that ICANN had deliberately introduced loopholes in order to let Demand — and, at the time, Go Daddy — into the new gTLD program.

At that time, ICANN had just removed references to “any person or entity owning (or beneficially owning) fifteen percent or more of the applicant” in the background screening section of the Guidebook.

That might have introduced a loophole allowing subsidiaries of cybersquatters to apply.

But Demand Media seemed to think it was still at risk, asking ICANN in December 2010 to change the background check rules.

ICANN did. In the next version of the Guidebook, published in April 2011, it added the “In the absence of exceptional circumstances” qualifying language.

It’s also possible that this was the loophole that allowed Demand to pass screening.

Judging by the UDRP complaints it was involved in in the past, the company usually argued against the “bad faith” element of the policy. It often said it didn’t know about the complainant’s trademark and/or said it had offered to transfer the domain at no charge.

But more than 30 UDRP panelists didn’t buy that argument and still found against Demand. The company lost far more complaints than it won.

The fact that the company apparently managed to clean its act up a few years ago — not being hit with any complaints since 2011 — suggests that its act wasn’t all that clean to begin with.

Either way, neither ICANN nor Demand wants to talk about how the company passed screening, so I guess we’re still left wondering whether this section of the Guidebook is worth the PDF it’s written on.

Blow to domainers as Arab center approved to settle cybersquatting disputes

Kevin Murphy, May 22, 2013, Domain Services

ICANN has approved a new UDRP resolution provider, the first to be based in the Arab region, despite the objections of domainers.

The Arab Center for Dispute Resolution will now be able to service UDRP complaints. But it won’t be bound to an ICANN contract, as had been demanded by the Internet Commerce Association and others.

The ACDR was approved by the ICANN board last week, almost three years after it originally applied for the privilege.

The board said in its rationale that the move would be good for geographic diversity and that its rigorous community review process highlighted community accountability.

On the issue of UDRP provider contracts, it merely noted:

commenters suggested that ICANN develop contracts with each of its UDRP providers as a means to require uniformity among providers. Contracts have never been required of UDRP providers.

the proposal now includes an affirmative recognition that if ICANN imposes further requirements on providers, the ACDR will follow those requirements

The ACDR will come as a knock to the ICA, which recently celebrated the fact that ICANN intends to have formal contracts with providers of Uniform Rapid Suspension services.

NAF prices URS at $375 to $500 per case

Kevin Murphy, April 22, 2013, Domain Policy

The National Arbitration Forum has released its price list for Uniform Rapid Suspension complaints, saying that the cheapest case will cost $375.

That’s for cases involving one to 15 domains. Prices increase based on the number of domains in the filing, capped at $500 for cases involving over 100 names.

The prices are within the range that ICANN had asked of its URS providers.

Some potential URS vendors had argued that $500 was too low to administer the cases and pay lawyers to act as panelists, but changed their tune after ICANN opened up an RFP process.

NAF’s price list also includes response fees of $400 to $500, which are refundable to the prevailing party. There are also extra fees for cases involving more than one panelist.

The prices are found in the NAF’s Supplemental Rules for URS, which have not yet been given the okay by ICANN. NAF expects that to come by July 1.

ICANN has found a sub-$500 URS provider

Kevin Murphy, January 30, 2013, Domain Policy

ICANN has picked a provider for its Uniform Rapid Suspension anti-cybersquatting service, one that’s willing to manage cases at under $500 per filing.

The news came from new gTLD program manager Christine Willett during webcast meetings this week.

“We have identified a provider for the URS who’s going to be able to provide that service within the target $300 to $500 filing fee price range. We’re in the process of formalizing that relationship,” she said last night.

The name of the lucky provider has not yet been revealed — Willett expects that news to come in February — but it’s known that several vendors were interested in the gig.

URS is a complement to the existing UDRP system, designed to enable trademark owners to execute quick(ish) takedowns, rather than transfers, of infringing domain names.

ICANN found itself in a bit of a quandary last year when UDRP providers WIPO and the National Arbitration Forum said they doubted it could be done for the target fee without compromising registrant rights.

But a subsequent RFP — demanded by members of the community — revealed several providers willing to hit the sub-$500 target.

ICANN expects to approve multiple URS vendors over time.