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Defunct Famous Four ordered to hand $1.5 million back to investors

Former domain registry manager Famous Four Media has been ordered to return money to investors that was being used as insurance against its portfolio of gTLDs going out of business.

In an April 18 ruling (pdf) from Gibraltar’s Supreme Court, FFM and its CEO Iain Roache are told that original investors Domain Venture Partners are the true owners what looks to be about $1.5 million being used to back letters of credit in ICANN’s name.

It’s a very complicated ruling, reflecting the complex structure of the FFM/DVP relationship. It wants for clarity in some areas, and is probably best suited to interpretation by a forensic accountant.

Nevertheless, I’ll give it a shot.

Basically, back in 2011 businessman Iain Roache recruited a bunch of international investors to join him in funding applications for 60 new gTLDs. The investment vehicle was and is called Domain Venture Partners.

Each application had an associated “bid vehicle”, essentially a Gibraltar-based shell company with names along the lines of Dot Science Ltd or Dot Accountant Ltd.

Those of the vehicles that were successful in their applications continue to be the official registry sponsors for 16 active gTLDs. They’re all owned by DVP.

Famous Four was a separate company, owned 80:20 by Roache and business partner Geir Rasmussen, hired by DVP to manage the business of actually selling domains.

For many years, myself and pretty much everybody else covering the domain name industry referred to FFM as if it was the owner of the TLDs, more or less interchangeably with DVP.

In fact, FFM was just a DVP contractor and behind the scenes DVP was growing increasingly unhappy with how the domains were being managed, DVP investor Robert Maroney told DI last August.

For about a year now, FFM has been in liquidation. DVP kicked it out of the registry management business and replaced it with a new company that it controls called GRS Domains, managed by a PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant called Edgar Lavarello.

Thirteen of the DVP bid vehicles sued Famous Four to claim ownership of, among other things, the money backing the so-called “Continuing Operations Instruments” that ICANN demanded from each new gTLD applicant.

The COI, usually a letter of credit from a big bank, were used to give ICANN the confidence that new gTLD domain registrants would not be affected by dodgy registries going out of business and their domains immediately going dark. The money would fund ongoing technical operations for a few years, giving registrants time to find a new home for their web sites.

In this case, Famous Four’s liquidator refused to agree that the money backing the COIs was rightfully DVP’s.

What seems to have happened is that in mid-2016 the DVP letters of credit were hastily switched from Credit Suisse to Barclays, after Credit Suisse closed down its Gibraltar branch.

There was a period in which both sets of LoCs were active, in order to remain compliant with ICANN’s rule that there must be an active COI at all times.

The original Credit Suisse LoCs had been funded by DVP, but the Barclays LoCs were funded by FFM, or quite possibly Roache himself, to the tune of about $1.5 million.

FFM was then repaid by the return of the money backing the Credit Suisse LoCs, when those LoCs were closed, according to Chief Justice Anthony Dudley’s ruling.

After the switch of banks, the LoCs were no longer in the names of the DVP bid vehicles; they belonged to FFM. The money DVP put up to originally secure the COIs was now in FFM’s control.

Dudley now seems to have ruled that FFM now owes DVP this money back, and that the liquidator, Grant Jones of Simmons Gainsford, was wrong to withhold it.

In fact, the judge has some quite stern words for Jones, saying that he was “wholly inappropriate” when he temporarily turned over his responsibilities as liquidator to Roache and his law firm. Dudley wrote:

It may be that it arises as a consequence of the Liquidator having limited funds with which to engage in litigation. But whatever the reason, the position adopted by the liquidator of FFM in these proceedings has been unusual and certainly capable of being construed as running counter to the fundamental principle of objectivity required of a Liquidator, now codified in the Insolvency Practitioner Regulations 2014. Rather than formulate his own view (or as urged by me at a preliminary hearing seek his own independent legal advice) by letter dated 1 March 2019 GJ sought to abrogate his responsibility and authorised IR and JSF to act on behalf of FFM

That aside, the main piece of evidence that appears to have caused Dudley to side with DVP was a set of emails from Famous Four chief legal officer Oliver Smith to DVP investors that were sent at the time the LoCs were switching banks.

Smith confirmed in one of these emails that FFM was basically just acting as a conduit for DVPs bid vehicles, which by that point were operational registries.

The judge noted that the Smith email that confirmed this was submitted in evidence by Lavarello and Maroney only after Roache had submitted the rest of the thread, excluding this email, in his own evidence.

Dudley ruled that the DVP companies should get what they asked for, namely the funds associated with the LoCs. It’s not entirely clear from his ruling how much this is, but by my reading it’s around the $1.5 million mark.

The liquidation, which is ongoing, is to the best of my knowledge unrelated to the still unexplained demise of AlpNames, the registrar and close FFM partner also owned by Roache and Rasmussen.

Finally, a disclaimer.

Because I’ve already had one spurious legal threat related to my ongoing coverage of Famous Four’s demise, and don’t really need the arseache of any more, I’m going to state unequivocally for the record that I’m not alleging any wrongdoing by anyone.

If I’ve got anything wrong, as always I will gladly issue a correction. Just ask, and show your working. No need to sic the lawyers on me.

You can read the judge’s decision (pdf) and decide for yourself what’s been going on.

ICANN to host first-ever high-stakes dot-brand auction

Kevin Murphy, May 7, 2019, Domain Sales

Two companies that own trademark rights to the same brand are to fight it out at an ICANN auction for the first time.

Germany-based Merck Group will fight it out for .merck with American rival Merck & Co at an auction scheduled to take place July 17.

Because it’s an ICANN “last-resort” auction, the value of the winning bid will be disclosed and all the money will flow to ICANN.

It will be the first ICANN gTLD auction for three years, when a Verisign proxy agreed to pay $135 million for .web.

The two Mercks could still avoid the ICANN auction by resolving their contention set privately.

The German Merck is a chemicals company founded in 1668 (not a typo) and the US Merck was founded as its subsidiary in the late 19th century.

That division was seized by the US government during World War I and subsequently became independent.

The German company uses merckgroup.com as its primary domain today. The US firm, which with 2018 revenue of over $42 billion is by far the larger company, uses merck.com.

Both companies applied for .merck as “community” applicants and went through the Community Priority Evaluation process.

Neither company scored enough points to avoid an auction, but the German company had the edge in terms of points scored.

Both applications then found themselves frozen while ICANN reviewed whether its CPE process was fair. That’s the same process that tied up the likes of .gay and .music for so many years.

While the July auction will be the first all-brand ICANN auction, at least one trademark owner has had to go to auction before.

Vistaprint, which owns a trademark on the term “webs” was forced to participate in the .web auction after a String Confusion Objection loss, but due to the technicalities of the process only had to pay $1 for .webs.

ICANN plans return to Cancun in 2021

Kevin Murphy, May 7, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN has named the locations of two of its 2021 public meetings.

Notably, it will return to Cancun, Mexico, in the March for ICANN 70, just one year after hosting ICANN 67 there.

In both years, the dates appear to coincide with some US universities’ “Spring Break” academic holiday, which sees many college students descend on Cancun to take advantage to excess of Mexico’s more liberal drinking laws.

In June 2021, ICANN will head to the Hague in the Netherlands, perhaps also known for its more liberal attitude to inebriants, for its mid-year policy meeting.

It’s already named Seattle, home to several domain companies, as its choice for the final meeting of 2021.

Under ICANN’s system of dividing up the world into regions for the purpose of meetings rotation, Mexico counts as Latin America rather than North America.

PIR says it has no plans to raise .org prices

Public Interest Registry claims it has no plans to raise its wholesale fee for .org domains, in the face of outrage from domainers and non-profits.

Under a proposed renegotiated contract with ICANN, price caps that have limited PIR to a 10% price increase every year would be removed.

But in a statement last week, the company said:

Rest assured, we will not raise prices unreasonably. In fact, we currently have no specific plans for any price increases for .ORG. We simply are moving to the standard registry agreement with all of its applicable provisions that already is in place for more than 1,200 other top-level domain extensions.

This does not necessarily translate to a commitment to not raise prices, of course. PIR may have “no specific plans” today, but it may tomorrow.

Over 3,300 people and organizations filed comments with ICANN about the proposed removal of the price caps, almost all of them negative.

Comments came initially from domain investors, but they were soon joined by many non-profit .org registrants and others.

Most claimed that it was unfair to allow unlimited price increases in legacy, pre-2012 gTLDs such as .org, which can be seen more as a public trust.

PIR went on to point out in its letter that it has not raised its prices — believed to be still under $10 a year — for the last three years.

But it might be worth noting that senior management has changed in that period. Brian Cute left the CEO job a year ago and, after an interim caretaker manager, was replaced by Donuts alumnus Jon Nevett in December.

.org’s registration numbers have been dipping. Over the last three years, it’s dropped from a peak of 11.3 million to 10.6 million at the end of 2018.

But it’s also renegotiated its back-end contract with Afilias over that period, meaning it’s now paying millions less on technical running costs than it once was.

PIR also reiterates that, like many of its customers, it is also a non-profit that is not motivated by investors and share prices.

More than half of its profits go to fund the Internet Society, itself a non-profit organization.

“We are different. We are mission based and not every decision is a financial one; we are not just driven by the bottom line,” its statement says.

PIR says that registrants are also protected by the measure in all ICANN gTLD contracts that allows registrants to lock in prices for up to 10 years in the event of a price increase, and by the fact that .org operates in a competitive market.

Reasonable people can and do disagree on whether these are effective protections in a case like .org.

.CLUB to let brands block “trillions” of domains for $2,000

.CLUB Domains has launched a service for trademark owners that will enable them to block an essentially infinite number of potential cybersquats for a $2,000 payment every three years.

But the restrictions in place to avoid false positives mean that some of the world’s most recognizable brands would not be eligible to use it.

The service is called Trademark Sentry. In February, .CLUB asked ICANN for approval to launch it under the name Unlimited Name Blocking Service.

It’s cast by the registry roughly as a kind of clone of Donuts’ five-year-old Domain Protected Marks List, which enables brands to block their marks across Donuts’ entire portfolio of 242 gTLDs for far less than they would pay defensively registering 242 domains individually.

But while Donuts has a massive stable of TLDs, .CLUB is a one-horse town, so what’s going on?

Based on promotional materials .CLUB sent me, it appears that Trademark Sentry is primarily a way to reduce not defensive registration costs but rather UDRP costs.

Instead of blocking a single trademarked string across a broad portfolio of TLDs — for example google.ninja, google.bike, google.guru, google.charity… — the .CLUB service allows brands to block any domain that contains that string in a single TLD.

For example, Google could pay .CLUB $2,000, and for the next three years it would be impossible for anyone to register any .club domain that contained the substring “google”.

Any potential cybersquatter who went to a registrar and tried to register domains such as “mygooglesearch.club” or “googlefootball.club” or “bestgoogle.club” or “xreegtegooglefwrreed.club” would be told by the registrar that the domain was unavailable.

It would be blocked at the registry level, because it contained the blocked string “google”.

Customers will be able to add typos to the blocklist for a 50% discount.

To the best of my knowledge, this is not a service currently offered by any other gTLD registry.

It’s precisely the kind of thing that the IP lobby at ICANN was crying out for — albeit without the obligation to pay for it — prior to the 2012 application round.

.CLUB reckons it’s a money-saver for brand owners who find themselves filing lots of UDRP complaints.

UDRP complaints cost at least $1,500, just for the filing fees with outfits such as WIPO. They can cost many hundreds more in lawyers fees.

Basically, if you expect your brand will be hit by at least one UDRP in .club in the next three years, $2,000 might look like a decent investment.

.club domains have been subject to 279 UDRP complaints over the last five years, according to UDRPSearch.com.

But .CLUB has put in place a number of restrictions that are likely to seriously restrict its potential customer base.

First, the trademark will have to be “fanciful”. The registry says:

To qualify for Unlimited Name Blocking a trademark must be fanciful as defined by the USPTO and meet the .CLUB Registry’s additional requirements and subject to the .CLUB Registry’s discretion. Marks that are not fanciful but when combined with another word become sufficiently unique may be allowed.

“Apple” would not be permitted, but “AppleComputer” might be.

.CLUB told me that any trademark that, if blocked, would prevent non-infringing uses of the string would also not qualify for the service.

If you look at a UDRP-happy brand like Lego, which has already filed several complaints about alleged cybersquats in .club, it would certainly not qualify. Too many words end in “le” and begin with “go” for .CLUB to block every domain containing “lego”.

Similarly, Facebook would likely not qualify because one can imagine non-infringing uses such as facetofacebookmakers.club. Twitter is a dictionary word, as is Coke. Pepsi is a substring of dyspepsia. Amazon is primarily a geographic term. McDonald’s is derived from a common surname, as are Cartier and Heinz.

For at least half of the famous brands that pop into my head, I can think of a reason they will probably not be allowed to use this service.

.CLUB also won’t allow trademarks shorter than five characters.

Still, for those brands that do qualify, and do have an aggressive UDRP-based enforcement policy, the service seems to be priced at a point where an ROI case can be made.

Like Donuts’ DPML domains, anything blocked under Trademark Sentry is not going to show up in zone files, so we’re not going to have any objective data with which to monitor its success.

Non-coms say .org price cap should be RAISED

Kevin Murphy, April 30, 2019, Domain Registries

With the entire domain name community apparently split along binary lines on the issue of price caps in .org, a third option has emerged from a surprising source.

ICANN’s Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group has suggested that price caps should remain, but that they should be raised from their current level of 10% per year.

In its comments to ICANN (pdf), NCSG wrote that it would “not object to the price cap being raised by a reasonable level”, adding:

Rather than removing price caps from the agreement entirely, these should be retained but raised by an appropriate amount. In addition, this aspect of the contract should be subject to a review midway through the contract, based on the impact of the price changes on non-profit registrants.

The NCSG does not quote a percentage or dollar value that it would consider “reasonable” or “appropriate”.

The letter notes that Public Interest Registry, which runs .org, uses some of its registration money to fund NCSG’s activities.

The NCSG disagrees with the decision to remove price cap provisions in the current .org agreement. On the one hand, we recognize the maturation of the domain name market, and the need for Public Interest Registry to capitalize on the commercial opportunities available to it. Public Interest Registry, as a non-profit entity, supports many excellent causes (including, it is worth noting, the NCSG). On the other hand, as the home for schools, community organizations, open-source projects, and other non-profit entities that are run on shoestring budgets, this registry should not necessarily operate under the same commercial realities that guide other domains. Fees should remain affordable, with domains which are priced within reach of everyone, no matter how few resources they have. Consequently, we support leaving the price cap provisions in place. We would not object to the price cap being raised by a reasonable level.

Basically, the ICANN community group nominally representing precisely .org’s target market doesn’t mind prices going up, just as long as PIR doesn’t get greedy.

It’s slightly surprising, to me, to find NCSG on the middle ground here.

There are currently over 3,250 comments on the renewal of PIR’s registry contract with ICANN — coming from domainers, individual registrants, and large and small non-profit organizations — almost all of which are firmly against the removal of price caps.

The only comments I’ve been able to find in favor of the scrapping of caps came from the Business Constituency. Intellectual property interests had no opinion.

I don’t believe the registries and registrars stakeholder groups filed consensus comments, but Tucows did file an individual comment (pdf) objecting to the removal of caps.

Dot-brand early adopter becomes 48th to disappear

Kevin Murphy, April 30, 2019, Domain Registries

A Singaporean telecommunications company has become the latest gTLD registry to voluntarily drop its dot-brand.

StarHub, which had 2018 revenue equivalent to $1.73 billion, told ICANN it no longer wished to operate .starhub in February and ICANN opened its request up for a month of public comment last week (a formality).

It’s the 48th of the several hundred original dot-brand applications to change its mind after delegation.

Notably, StarHub was one of the first companies to announce its participation in, and tout the expected benefits of, the new gTLD program.

Back in February 2012, when most applicants were playing their cards close to their chest because the application window was still open, Oliver Chong, assistant vice president of brand and marketing communications at StarHub, said:

We believe the ‘.starhub’ Top-Level Domain will deliver clear marketing and advertising benefits to StarHub, such as improved online brand recall and a more intuitive consumer experience with easy to remember domain names such as ‘mobile.starhub’. We also anticipate potential Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) benefits by operating a more targeted and relevant naming system that is clearly matched with our website content.

Yeah… so, none of that actually happened.

Like all the other dot-brands to self-terminate, StarHub never actually used .starhub, other than the obligatory nic.starhub placeholder.

As an aside that may counterbalance this bad news for the perception of new gTLDs, one of StarHub’s competitors in the Singapore mobile market is called Circles.Life. It uses circles.life as its primary domain and has apparently performed respectably since its launch in 2016.

Imagine that! A mobile phone operator being successful using a new gTLD domain!

Donuts acquires its 242nd gTLD

Kevin Murphy, April 29, 2019, Domain Registrars

Donuts, the registry with the largest stable of new gTLDs, has added its 242nd string to its bow.

The company seems to have acquired .contact from, nominally at least, smaller portfolio rival Top Level Spectrum.

The ICANN contract for the gTLD was transferred to one of Donuts’ subsidiaries a couple weeks ago.

According to TLS CEO Jay Westerdal, while TLS was the signatory of the contract the “economic owner” of the TLD was Whitepages.com, an online directory services provider, which paid for the original uncontested .contact application.

Whitepages.com doesn’t appear in the application, the registry agreement, or the IANA records. I was unaware of the connection until today.

Despite being in the root since December 2015, .contact never actually launched. Donuts has not yet filed its launch dates with ICANN either, but it’s usually fairly speedy about pumping out strings.

Non-profits worth $2.6 billion a year say .org price caps should stay

Kevin Murphy, April 29, 2019, Domain Registries

Eight large US-based non-profits, several of them household names, have put their names to a letter demanding that Public Interest Registry should not be allowed to increase its .org registry fees beyond 10% a year.

Combined, these eight outfits have revenue of roughly $2.6 billion per year.

PIR’s fees are currently under $10 per domain per year. It has roughly 10.6 million names under management.

The organizations signing the letter are TV network C-SPAN, broadcaster NPR, conservation charity the National Trust for Historic Preservation, retired persons advocate the AARP, environmental groups the National Geographic Society, the Conservation Fund and Oceana, and disco legends YMCA of the USA.

In a joint letter, submitted as part of ICANN’s public comment period on the renewal of PIR’s .org contract, they write:

We agree with the current .org registry operator, the Public Interest Registry, that the .org gTLD “has assumed the reputation as the domain of choice for organisations dedicated to serving the public interest.” We have come to rely on this reputation to help distinguish the online presence of our organizations from the online presence of organizations that are not intended to serve the public interest. As nonprofit organizations, we also have come to rely on the certainty and predictability of reasonable domain name registration expenses when allocating our limited resources.

Sourced from Wikipedia and tax returns, here’s how much revenue these non-profits bring in per year:

  • NPR — $208 million (2016)
  • C-SPAN — $73.2 million (2014)
  • YMCA of the USA — $169.5 million (2017)
  • National Geographic Society — $188 million (2017)
  • AARP — $1.6 billion (2016)
  • The Conservation Fund — $238 million (2017)
  • Oceana — $53 million (2017)
  • National Trust for Historic Preservation — $62.9 million (2017)

Limited resources indeed.

The deadline for comments is midnight UTC tonight, about two hours from the dateline on this post.

Governments demand Whois reopened within a year

Kevin Murphy, April 29, 2019, Domain Policy

ICANN’s government advisers wants cops, trademark owners and others to get access to private Whois data in under a year from now.

The Governmental Advisory Committee wants to see “considerable and demonstrable progress, if not completion” of the so-called “unified access model” for Whois by ICANN66 in Montreal, a meeting due to kick off November 4 this year.

The demand came in a letter (pdf) last week from GAC chair Manal Ismail to her ICANN board counterpart Cherine Chalaby.

She wrote that the GAC wants “phase 2” of the ongoing Expedited Policy Development Process on Whois not only concluded but also implemented “within 12 months or less” of now.

It’s a more specific version of the generic “hurry up” advice delivered formally in last month’s Kobe GAC communique.

It strikes me as a ludicrously ambitious deadline.

Phase 2 of the EPDP’s work involves deciding what “legitimate interests” should be able to request access to unredacted private Whois data, and how such requests should be handled.

The GAC believes “legitimate interests include civil, administrative and criminal law enforcement, cybersecurity, consumer protection and IP rights protection”.

IP interests including Facebook want to be able to vacuum up as much data as they want more or less on demand, but they face resistance from privacy advocates in the non-commercial sector (which want to make access as restrictive as possible) and to a lesser extent registries and registrars (which want something as cheap and easy as possible to implement and operate that does not open them up to legal liability).

Ismail’s letter suggests that work could be sped up by starting the implementation of stuff the EPDP group agrees to as it agrees to it, rather than waiting for its full workload to be complete.

Given the likelihood that there will be a great many dependencies between the various recommendations the group will come up with, this suggestion also comes across as ambitious.

The EPDP group is currently in a bit of a lull, following the delivery of its phase 1 report to ICANN, which is expected to approve its recommendations next month.

Since the phase 1 work finished in late February, there’s been a change of leadership of the group, and bunch of its volunteer members have been swapped out.

Volunteers have also complained about burnout, and there’s been some pressure for the pace of work — which included four to five hours of teleconferences per week for six months — to be scaled back for the second phase.

The group’s leadership has discussed 12 to 18 months as a “realistic and desirable” timeframe for it to reach its Initial Report stage on the phase 2 work.

For comparison, it published its Initial Report for phase 1 after only six stressful months on the job, and not only have its recommendations not been implemented, they’ve not even been approved by ICANN’s board of directors yet. That’s expected to happen this Friday, at the board’s retreat in Istanbul.

With this previous experience in mind, the chances of the GAC getting a unified Whois access service implemented within a year seem very remote.