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New US trademark rules likely to exclude many dot-brand gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, August 13, 2013, Domain Policy

The US Patent and Trademark Office plans to allow domain name registries to get trademarks on their gTLDs.

Changes proposed this week seem to be limited to dot-brand gTLDs and would not appear to allow registries for generic strings — not even “closed” generics — to obtain trademarks.

But the rules are crafted in such a way that single-registrant dot-brands might be excluded.

Under existing USPTO policy, applications for trademarks that consist solely of a gTLD cannot be approved, because they don’t identify the source of goods and services.

If “.com” were a trademark, one might have to assume that the source of Amazon.com’s services was Verisign, which is plainly not the case.

But the new gTLD program has invited in hundreds of gTLDs that exactly match existing trademarks. The USPTO said:

Some of the new gTLDs under consideration may have significance as source identifiers… Accordingly, the USPTO is amending its gTLD policy to allow, in some circumstances, for the registration of a mark consisting of a gTLD for domain-name registration or registry services

In order to have a gTLD trademark approved, the applicant would have to pass several tests, substantially reducing the number of marks that would get the USPTO’s blessing.

First, only companies that have signed a Registry Agreement with ICANN would be able to get a gTLD trademark. That should continue to prohibit “front-running”, in which a gTLD applicant tries to secure an advantage during the application process by getting a trademark first.

Second, the registry would have to own a prior trademark for the gTLD string in question. It would have to exactly match the gTLD, though the dot would not be considered.

It would have to be a word mark, without attached disclaimers, for the same types of goods and services that web sites within the gTLD are supposed to provide.

What this seems to mean is that registries would not be able to get trademarks on closed generics.

You can’t get a US trademark on the word “cheese” if you sell cheese, for example, but you can if you sell a brand of T-shirts called Cheese.

So you could only get a trademark on “.cheese” as a gTLD if the class was something along the lines of “domain name registration services for web sites devoted to selling T-shirts”.

Third, registries would have to present a bunch of other evidence demonstrating that their brand is already so well-known that consumers will automatically assume they also own the gTLD:

Because consumers are so highly conditioned and may be predisposed to view gTLDs as non-source indicating, the applicant must show that consumers already will be so familiar with the wording as a mark, that they will transfer the source recognition even to the domain name registration or registry services.

Fourth, and here’s the kicker, the registry would have to show it provides a “legitimate service for the benefit of others”. The USPTO explained:

To be considered a service within the parameters of the Trademark Act, an activity must, inter alia, be primarily for the benefit of someone other than the applicant.

While operating a gTLD registry that is only available for the applicant’s employees or for the applicant’s marketing initiatives alone generally would not qualify as a service, registration for use by the applicant’s affiliated distributors typically would.

In other words, a .ford as a single-registrant gTLD would not qualify for a trademark, but a .ford that allowed its dealerships around the world to register domains would.

That appears to exclude many dot-brand applicants. In the current batch, most dot-brands expect to be the sole registrant as well as the registry, at least at first.

Some applications talk in vague terms about also opening up their namespace to affiliates, but in most applications I’ve read that’s a wait-and-see proposition.

The new USPTO rules, which are open for comment to people who have registered with its web site, would appear to apply to a very small number of applicants at this stage.

Go Daddy: 6% chance somebody else wants that available reg-fee domain too

Kevin Murphy, August 10, 2012, Domain Registrars

If you’ve found an available, unregistered domain name, there’s at least a 6% chance that somebody else has also found it that very same day, according to Go Daddy.

More than 6% customer searches for available domain names are performed by more than one person each day, head of product development Richard Merdinger said in a blog post.

According to Merdinger, due to the sheer volume of searches, “more than six percent of customer searches for available domain names are performed by more than one person each day.”

The post, which was written in response to a single highly questionable allegation of “front-running”, added:

This overlap in domain name requests happens every day. As unique as customers believe their domain name ideas are, there’s more “innovation collision” than many people realize. With so many domain name registrations happening every day, there is a good probability a domain name you searched for is also being searched by someone else.

He also publishes some anonymized log data to prove his point.

There are tens of millions of domain searches on Go Daddy every day, apparently.

Tiny start-up secures .bank gTLD trademark

Kevin Murphy, January 12, 2012, Domain Registries

A likely new gTLD applicant has secured a US trademark on the term “.bank”.

Asif LLC, a Wisconsin start-up with an undisclosed number of employees, won approval for the trademark 4,085,335 on Tuesday, for use in “domain name registration services”.

(UPDATE: Asif actually does business now as Domain Security Company LLC, but the trademark application was filed under its former name.)

As Domain Name Wire reported last year, Asif became a Go Daddy reseller in order to provide the US Patent & Trademark Office with proof it was using the brand.

It appears the gambit was successful, and the company now has a card to play in its inevitable battle with other .bank applicants, such as the BITS/American Bankers Association project.

Mary Iqbal, Asif’s CEO, told DomainIncite today that the company also has a trademark pending in Pakistan, where it has existing business connections.

Iqbal says she’s serious about her .bank application. It’s an idea she’s been working on for a few years.

Asif has been talking to security companies about providing the security infrastructure for the gTLD and has already signed up with a registry back-end provider, she said.

All she was prepared to disclose at the moment is that one of these partners has “ground-breaking encryption technology” and that the company has solid plans for its security profile.

The .bank gTLD would of course be limited to manually verified financial institutions, Iqbal confirmed.

Explaining the reseller site used to get the trademark, Iqbal said: “We intend to use that in future to sell .bank domain names but for now we’re selling names in other TLDs.”

Asif also has a pending US trademark on “.secure”, which it also plans to apply for as a gTLD.

Iqbal said that the company plans to offer small and medium sized e-commerce businesses extra security services if they redirect their customers to their .secure domain at the checkout.

While I am unaware of any other public .secure applicants, the .bank gTLD is expected to be contested.

A joint project of the American Bankers Association and BITS, part of the Financial Services Roundtable, has already essentially confirmed that it plans to apply for .bank and possibly two other financial gTLDs, using Verisign as its back-end.

“We don’t know for sure if they’re going to apply for .bank,” Iqbal said, however. “If somebody else does apply, all I can say that we are the legal rights holder for .bank.”

Holding a trademark on a term gives companies the right to file a Legal Rights Objection against new gTLD applicants.

However, as much as I love an entrepreneur, I estimate the chances of Asif getting its .bank application approved at roughly zero, trademark or not.

There are about half a dozen different reasons Asif would probably not pass the Legal Rights Objection test, which would leave it in a contention set with other .bank applicants.

The final mechanism offered by ICANN to resolve contested gTLDs is an auction, and nobody goes into an auction against the American Bankers Association expecting to win.

ICANN also encourages applicants in contention sets to talk it out amongst themselves before resorting to auction. If Asif is lucky, a rival .bank applicant will pay it to go away before the string goes to auction.

If it’s very lucky, somebody will acquire the trademark before the company – which Iqbal said is already funded but would welcome additional investment – splashes out $185,000 on its application fee.

The Asif .bank application also stands a substantial chance of being objected to by governments.

ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee, and in particular the influential US representative, has very strong views on gTLDs purporting to represent regulated industries.

If the GAC is faced with a choice between a .bank backed by the ABA and BITS with a Verisign back-end, and one backed by a tiny Wisconsin start-up, I believe there’s a pretty good chance the Wisconsin start-up is going to find itself on the receiving end of a GAC Advice objection.

Just a hunch.

New TLD guidebook bans domain front-running

Kevin Murphy, November 15, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s newly published Applicant Guidebook for new top-level domain operators contains a draft Code of Conduct for registries that, among other things, bans “front-running”.

The code, which I think is probably going to be one of the most talked-about parts of the AGB in the run-up to ICANN’s Cartagena meeting next month, is designed to address problems that could arise when registrars are allowed to run registries and vice versa.

Front-running is the name given to a scenario in which registrars use insider information – their customers’ domain availability lookups – to determine which high-value domains to register to themselves.

While there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that such practices have occurred in the past, a study carried out last year by researcher Ben Edelman found no evidence that it still goes on.

Front-running was however held up as one reason why registrars and registries should not be allowed to vertically integrate, so the AGB’s code of conduct explicitly bans it.

It also bans registries accessing data generated by affiliated registrars, or from buying any domains for its own use, unless they’re needed for the management of the TLD.

Integrated registries will have to keep separate accounts for their registrar arms, and there will have to be a technological Chinese wall stopping registry and registrar data from cross-pollinating.

Registries will also have to submit a self-audit to ICANN, certifying their compliance with the code of conduct, before January 20 every year.

The code is currently a six-point plan, which, given the past “ingenuity” of domain name companies, may prove a little on the light side.

There’s lots more discussion to be had on this count, no doubt.

Vertical integration – bad news for domainers?

Kevin Murphy, November 10, 2010, Domain Registries

ICANN’s decision to allow domain name registrars to operate registries is a game changer on many fronts, but what impact could it have on domain investors?

For the first time, registrars will be able apply for and run new top-level domains, giving them unprecedented insight into registry-level data.

If they also act as registries, registrars will, for example, be able to see what non-existent domains in their TLD get the most type-in traffic.

They will also be able to see how much traffic expiring domains get, even if the registrant does not use the registrar’s own name servers.

As claimed by some participants in ICANN’s vertical integration working group, this data could be used to “harm” registrants; harms that could be especially noticeable to domainers.

There was a concern from some in the WG that combined registry-registrar entities (we’re going to need a name for these) could use registry data to, for example, identify and withhold high-value names, increasing prices to potential registrants.

The possibility of an increase in “domain tasting” and “front-running” – practices generally frowned upon nowadays – was also raised.

However, some registrars are already owned by companies that register large numbers of traffic domains for themselves, even without access to registry data.

Demand Media subsidiary eNom, the second-largest gTLD registrar, is a good example.

As DomainNameWire reported in August, the company already uses domain name lookups to decide what names to register for itself (though it told DNW it does not “front-run”), saying in SEC filings:

These queries and look-ups provide insight into what consumers may be seeking online and represent a proprietary and valuable source of relevant information for our platform’s title generation algorithms and the algorithms we use to acquire undeveloped websites for our portfolio.

Demand also said that it acquires eNom customers’ expiring domains if they are attractive enough:

Domain names not renewed by their prior registrants that meet certain of our criteria are acquired by us to augment our portfolio of undeveloped owned and operated websites.

Access to registry data could prove invaluable in refining this model, and eNom has, unsurprisingly. long indicated its desire to apply for and operate new TLDs.

But will registries be allowed to exploit this data to line their own pockets?

ICANN indicated today that it plans to introduce a code of conduct for registries, to prevent “misuse of data”, and will likely step up its compliance activities as a result.

What this code of conduct will look like remains to be seen, but I expect we’re looking at “Chinese wall” provisions similar to those self-imposed by VeriSign when it still owned Network Solutions.

It should be pointed out, of course, that standalone registries already have the ability to register domains to themselves, based on their own registry data, and I’m not aware of a great many incidents where this has been abused to the harm of registrants.