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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.

Famous Four is DEAD! New registry promises spam crackdown

Kevin Murphy, August 7, 2018, Domain Registries

Famous Four Media’s portfolio of gTLD registries is now under the control of a new company, Global Registry Services Ltd, which has promised to abandon its failed penny-domain strategy and crack down on spam.

(August 9 update: This article contains some incorrect assumptions and speculation. Please read this follow-up piece for clarifications.)

The company, which goes by the name GRS Domains, told registrars yesterday that FFM’s 16 gTLDs are now “controlled by the same parties that control Domain Venture Partners PCC Limited, and are no longer under the management of FFM.”

DVP also owned FFM, so it’s not clear how big of a deal this restructuring is from a management point of view.

My sense is that there’s not really been a substantial change, but it’s certainly more than a simple rebranding exercise.

I’ve learned that DVP was placed into administration under the Insolvency Act back in April, with management of the TLDs handed to a PricewaterhouseCoopers administrator, more or less as I speculated in June.

The TLDs affected are: .loan, .win, .men, .bid, .stream, .review, .trade, .date, .party, .download, .science, .racing, .accountant, .faith, .webcam and .cricket.

GRS told registrars:

Moving forward there are several changes being made with regard to the overall strategy of the portfolio of gTLDs, the main one being a change to a “quality over quantity” ethos and focusing on working with our Registrar Partners to sharply reduce abuse and spam registrations.

As such, all of its current pricing promotions will end August 20 and a “much more transparent and sensible pricing strategy” will come into play.

That means a wholesale reg fee of $9.98 across the board, at least until February 2019.

GRS also plans to take a lot of its lower-priced reserved “premium” names out of the premium program altogether, and to reprice “a considerable portion” of the more expensive ones.

Finally, the company, not known to attend ICANN meetings in the past, said it plans to show up at the Barcelona meeting in October to formally relaunch itself.

Famous Four has become notorious over the last few years for its deep-discounted TLDs, which have become a haven for spammers who want to register large numbers of super-cheap, throwaway domains.

As such, its gTLDs’ volumes have been huge — many racking up hundreds of thousands of names — but their renewals poor and their reputation worse.

If GRS’ new strategy is effective, we’re almost certainly going to see the industry-wide overall number of active new gTLD domains tank over the next year or so, giving more ammunition to those who think the new gTLD program was a huge waste of effort.

It could also have an impact on ICANN’s budget — no matter how cheap FFM sold its names, it still had to pay its ICANN fees on a per-domain basis. Fewer domains equals less money in ICANN’s coffers. FFM’s registries paid over $1.6 million in ICANN fees in the organization’s fiscal 2017.

While GRS is now apparently “controlled by the same parties that control Domain Venture Partners PCC Limited”, it’s not abundantly clear to me whether that’s the same people who’ve been running FFM for the last eight years.

DVP has not immediately responded to a request for comment today.

The DVP web site has not resolved in months. The new grs.domains site doesn’t name anyone, and the NIC sites for the gTLDs in the portfolio only identify a PwC bankruptcy accountant as the primary contact.

All the companies in question are based in tax haven Gibraltar, which isn’t particularly forthcoming about identifying company directors, partners or owners.

DVP’s directors were originally Adrian Hogg, Charles Melvin, Iain Roache, Douglas Smith, Peter Young, Joseph Garcia and a company called Domain Management II (itself chaired by Roache), according to an investor presentation (pdf) DI obtained back in 2013.

I believe Melvin at least, after a legal dispute with the others, is no longer involved.

And it appears that DVP is or was in fact in administration.

I noted back in June that the 16 gTLDs were now all being administered by PwC accountant Edgar Lavarello, and wondered aloud whether this meant FFM was bankrupt.

Today I obtained (read: paid an extortionate sum for) a Gibraltar court order dated April 23 putting DVP into administration under the Insolvency Act and appointing PwC as the administrator.

The application had been made by an investor called Christina Mattin and fellow investor Braganza, a private vehicle owned by a wealthy Scandinavian family, which was (at least last year) a 10% owner.

Other named investors the court heard from were the mysterious Liechtenstein-based Rennes Foundation, something called Northern Assets Investments Limited and Dutch multimillionaire Francis Claessens.

Overall, it smells a bit to me like DVP’s principals, having seen their previous venture put out of business by disgruntled investors, have snapped up its assets and are going to try to make a second go of running the business.

As for FFM? Well, it looks rather like we won’t be hearing that name again.

UPDATE: This article was updated several hours after it was originally posted to clarify that DVP was/is “in administration”.

Has the world’s biggest new gTLD registry gone bankrupt?

Has Famous Four Media, by some measures the largest new gTLD registry, gone bankrupt?

There’s some startling evidence that this may be the case, but the company and others concerned are maintaining radio silence.

Last week, IANA’s administrative contact for all of the company’s 16 TLDs changed from its CEO, Geir Rasmussen, to someone called Edgar Lavarello. Here’s an example.

Lavarello, it turns out, is a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Gibraltar who specializes in insolvency and liquidation.

Here he is in a three-year-old interview explaining why my headline today technically really should have used the word “insolvent” rather than “bankrupt”.

On Wednesday, I reached out for comment to Rasmussen and Lavarello, along with others known to work at FFM (at least recently) but have not received any responses.

Absence of a reply is not proof of anything of course — FFM has never been the most communicative company in the world and nobody is under any obligation to respond to inquiries from a humble blogger.

But I suspect that if I posed the straightforward if slightly cheeky question “Has your company gone bankrupt?” to almost any other member of the domain name industry, I’d usually expect to receive a denial in short order.

Sadly, insolvency records in laissez-faire British tax haven Gibraltar, where FFM is based, do not appear to be a matter of public record.

Even if FFM has not gone insolvent, I think there are clear signs it is having problems.

Its primary web site at famousfourmedia.com has been stripped back to be little more than a privacy policy and a contact form. Gone are all the sales pitches, press releases and TLD-specific pages. It’s now basically a one-pager.

The web site of its parent company, Domain Venture Partners, no longer resolves.

Reaching out to industry sources who have business relationships with FFM, I was unable to find anyone who’d talked to the company recently, though there were rumors of departing staff.

Earlier this year, company chair Iain Roache spent £3.9 million ($5.4 million) to buy out former FFM COO Charles Melvin, after Melvin filed a lawsuit against him and Rasmussen.

The nature of the suit is not particularly clear from public records, but at one point Gibraltar’s top judge ruled that the defendants had filed inaccurate — technically “forged” — documents to the court.

These documents included 10 invoices between FFM and AlpNames, its affiliated registrar.

Famous Four runs 16 new gTLDs — the largest among them .loan, .win and .men — and has arguably shifted more domains than any other portfolio registry.

Group volume currently runs at about 4.5 million names according to ntldstats, compared to 3.9 million for Donuts with its far larger portfolio of 241 strings.

It’s achieved this impressive scale largely by selling domains super cheap, often at or below cost and often via AlpNames.

This has resulted in huge numbers of domains being acquired by spammers. FFM strings are routinely listed in the SpamHaus top-ten list of dirtiest TLDs.

AlpNames is also regularly fingered as one of the most spam-friendly registrars.

The company’s chosen business model means that renewals, where you’d expect to make your actual revenue, are on the low side. If you take its .science as a representative example, the TLD peaked at 350,000 domains under management in April 2016 but stood at around 63,000 this February.