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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‚Äôs 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.