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Virgin territory as GoDaddy pushes $30 million porn domain renewals

Kevin Murphy, November 16, 2021, Domain Registries

Brand owners big and small are in for a potential surprise December 1, as their 10-year-old .xxx domain blocks expire and registrars bill their customers to convert them into a new annually-renewing GoDaddy service.

GoDaddy confirmed to DI today that it will “auto-convert” the old Sunrise B blocks, first sold by ICM Registry in 2011, to its new AdultBlock service, which provides essentially the same functionality but across four TLDs rather than one.

Tony Kirsch, head of professional services at GoDaddy Registry, said:

Registrars have been contacting all the Sunrise B owners and advising them that as of December 1 they will be grandfathered and automatically converted into an AdultBlock service, but they have a choice to expire that or stop that happening prior to December 1.

And if it is that they don’t do that before December 1, we’ll still give them a grace period of at least 45 days. If that happens they can then, as you’d normally do, just turn around to the registrar and say “We don’t want that” and we will of course refund the money.

This means that GoDaddy, which acquired .xxx and ICM from MMX earlier this year, is billing its .xxx registrar partners to convert and renew what could be as many as 81,000 Sunrise B blocks.

While the registry fee for AdultBlock has not been published, retail registrars I checked have priced the service at $370 to $400 per year, which we can probably assume is low-end pricing. Most .xxx domains are sold via the specialist brand-protection registrars like CSC and Markmonitor, which sometimes have more complex pricing.

So that’s something in the ballpark of $30 million worth of renewal invoices being sent out in the coming weeks, for something in many cases brand owners may have institutionally forgot about.

Kirsch said that AdultBlock was introduced by MMX about 18 months ago and that registrars have been preparing their customers for the Sunrise B expiration for some time.

Sunrise B was a program, unprecedented in the industry at the time, whereby trademark owners could pay a one-off fee — ICM charged its registrars about $160 wholesale — to have their brands removed from the available pool.

The domains exist in the .xxx zone file and resolve to a black page bearing the words “This domain has been reserved from registration”, but they’re not registered and usable like normal defensive or sunrise registrations would be.

Companies got to avoid not only the potential embarrassment of being porn-squatted, but also the hassle of having to explain to a tabloid reporter why they “owned” the .xxx domain in question.

The term of the Sunrise B block was 10 years. ICM told me at the time that this was because the company’s initial registry contract with ICANN only lasted for 10 years, so it was legally unable to sell longer-term blocks, but I’ve never been sure how much I buy that explanation.

Regardless, that 10 year period comes to an end in two weeks.

Because Sunrise B was unprecedented, this first renewal phase is also unprecedented. We’re in virgin territory (pun, of course, very much intended) here.

Will we see the industry’s first public “block junk drop”?

There are a number of reasons to believe trademark owners, assuming they don’t just blindly pay their registrar’s invoices, would choose to allow their blocks to expire or to ask for a refund after the fact.

First, the price has gone up — a lot.

While ICM charged $160 for a 10-year Sunrise B block (maybe marked up by registrars to a few hundred bucks) brand owners can expect to pay something like $3,000 retail for a single string blocked for 10 years.

But buyers do get a bit more bang for their buck. Unlike Sunrise B, AdultBlock also blocks the trademark in three additional GoDaddy-owned TLDs — .porn, .sex and .adult — as standard.

Kirsch said he expects buyers to see a 40% to 50% saving compared to the cost of defensively registering each domain individually.

Second, the appetite for defensive registrations has waned over the past 10 years, with trademark owners employing more nuanced approaches to brand protection, largely due to the flood of new gTLDs since 2013.

When .adult, .sex and .porn launched, without the possibility of Sunrise B blocks, they got about 2,000 regular sunrise registrations each. And that’s extraordinarily high — for most new gTLDs a couple hundred was a good turnout.

Third, the .xxx launch attracted a whole lot of controversy and overreaction, and the .xxx zone file today contains a lot of Sunrise B crap.

When I scrolled a little through the zone, cherry-picking silly-looking blocks in 2019, I found these examples:

100percentwholewheatthatkidslovetoeat.xxx, 101waystoleaveagameshow.xxx, 1firstnationalmergersandacquisitions.xxx, 1stchoiceliquorsuperstore.xxx, 2bupushingalltherightbuttons.xxx, 247claimsservicethesupportyouneed30minutesguaranteed.xxx, 3pathpowerdeliverysystembypioneermagneticsinc.xxx

Is it worth $400 a year to block the trademark “100 Percent Whole Wheat That Kids Love To Eat”? Is there any real danger of a cybersquatter going after that particular brand (apart from the fact that I’ve now written about it twice)?

Kirsch said a “small percentage” of Sunrise B owners have already said they don’t want to convert, but given that the rest will auto-convert, and that the registrars are doing all the customer-facing stuff, the company has limited visibility into likely uptake.

Brian King, director of policy at MarkMonitor, told us: “We generally encourage our clients to consider blocks. They can be cost effective and a lot of times clients would rather have their brand be unavailable without having to register in TLDs where they don’t want to own domain registrations for any number of reasons.”

One reason brand owners may want to consider converting to AdultBlock — it’s rumored that GoDaddy will be relaxing its eligibility criteria for .xxx next year, removing the requirement for registrants to have a nexus to the porn industry.

It’s always been kind of a bullshit rule, basically a hack to allow ICM to run a “sponsored” TLD under ICANN’s rules from the 2003 application round, but doing away with it would potentially make it easier for cybersquatters to get their hands on .xxx domains.

CSC told customers in a recent webinar that the rules are likely to be changed next year, increasing the risk of cybersquatting.

There’s some circumstantial evidence to suggest that CSC might be on to something — pretty much every “sponsored” gTLD from the same 2003 application round as .xxx has relaxed their reg rules to some extent, sometimes when their contracts come up for renewal and ICANN tries to normalize them with the text of the standard 2012-round agreement.

And GoDaddy’s .xxx contract with ICANN is being renegotiated right now. It was due to expire in March, but it was extended in February until December 15, a little under a month from now. We may soon see ICANN open up the new text for public comment.

Kirsch, who’s not part of the negotiations, could not confirm that the eligibility relaxation is going to happen or that it’s something GoDaddy is pushing for.

If it were to happen, it wouldn’t be for some time, and it wouldn’t necessarily impact on the December 1 deadline for Sunrise B conversions, which is going to be interesting to watch in its own right.

“There are registrations that are protecting people’s trademarks that are expiring and our primary objective here is to ensure that that protection continues, and that’s what we’ll do,” GoDaddy’s Kirsch said.

“If we just let them expire, it would create a lot of opportunity for brand infringement. Faced with that choice, our primary objective is to protect trademark owners,” he said.

Nothing but losses ahead for MMX

Kevin Murphy, September 27, 2021, Domain Registries

Former new gTLD registry MMX has delivered its latest set of financial results and warned that, without any operating business, it will be loss-making for the foreseeable future.

The company today reported a first-half loss of $783,000, compared to a loss of $1.25 million in the year-ago period.

That’s calculated from its ongoing operations, which since the $120 million sale of its registry business to GoDaddy comprises no revenue-generating activities but substantial costs keeping the company running and maintaining its listing on the AIM stock market.

Profit from discontinued operations was $3.38 million, compared to $2.68 million.

It still has small “RSP” business, providing non-technical back-office management services to a few former gTLD partners, but this will be wound down or sold off.

CEO Tony Farrow said in a statement:

We are now in the process of delivering the transition services agreed with GoDaddy Registry and disposing of, or otherwise winding down, our RSP Business. Whilst the transition services are being provided on a cost recovery basis, the Company’s ongoing administrative and other public company costs will result in operating losses for the Group going forward.

When the winding down of existing businesses is done, MMX will look for acquisition opportunities or act as a vessel for a reverse takeover.

It’s currently returning $80 million of its GoDaddy cash to investors with a buyback, but this is not enough to clear all of its shares.

MMX to return GoDaddy cash to investors

Kevin Murphy, September 13, 2021, Domain Registries

Former new gTLD portfolio registry Minds + Machines (MMX) said Friday that it has started returning most of its recent GoDaddy windfall to shareholders.

It has launched a tender offer to buy back £58 million ($80 million) worth of shares, after selling off its wedge of 20-odd ICANN contracts to the registrar giant.

The offer price is 9.6p ($0.13) per share. MMX said that’s a premium of 12.9% on its September 8 closing price and 13.1% over the average between August 11 and September 8.

It’s roughly the same price shares were trading for at the start of 2012, when ICANN opened the last new gTLD application window, but substantially lower than its peak when it started making new gTLD money a couple years later.

The proposal does not cover all of its shares; over 31% will remain in shareholder hands after the tender offer expires October 1.

The company has about $110 million in cash right now, and expects to spend $24 million of that on the GoDaddy transition, taxes, employee payments, professional services and the like, as it winds down over the fourth quarter.

MMX will retain its listing on AIM in London after the wind-down of operations, making it a vessel for a potential reverse-takeover, in which another company (not necessarily in the domains business) could back into it for an easier way into the public markets.

The company sold its registry portfolio to GoDaddy for about $120 million, and has wound down its registrars.

GoDaddy and MMX delay closure of $120 million gTLD deal

GoDaddy and MMX have extended the deadline for final closure of their $120 million gTLD acquisition deal by a couple weeks.

MMX said this week the delay is to give them more time to seek approvals from business partners in the four gTLDs that have not already made the move, believed to be .bayern, .boston, .miami and .nrw.

These are all geographic strings that require local government sign-off to complete the transfers.

The deadline had been August 7. It’s now August 23.

GoDaddy Registry has already taken control of 23 of MMX’s gTLDS.

GoDaddy welcomes four porn TLDs

GoDaddy may not have the raunchy public image it once promoted, but it’s now the official registry for tens of thousands of porn-related domain names.

The gTLDs .xxx, .porn, .adult and .sex made the move from UNR’s back-end to GoDaddy Registry this week, IANA records show.

These almost certainly the TLDs that MMX was talking about last week when it said it had ICANN approval to reassign four contracts, which it did not name.

IANA records still show the sponsor as ICM Registry for all four, suggesting the deal was structured a little differently to the 20-odd other gTLDs in MMX’s portfolio, which are still with MMX.

MMX said earlier this year that it was selling its entire portfolio to GoDaddy for at least $120 million.

.xxx, which launched the earliest — pre-2012 — is the largest of the TLDs, with around 55,000 names under management. .porn has about 10,000 and the other two have about 8,000 each.

MMX gets nod to sell 22 gTLDs to GoDaddy

New gTLD registry MMX expects to shortly offload most of its portfolio of strings to GoDaddy Registry after receiving ICANN approvals.

The company said today that its transfer requests for four of its gTLD contracts have received full ICANN approval.

Another 18 have received conditional ICANN approval, and MMX believes it has met these unspecified conditions.

Another five of its stable that are not fully owned and operated still require the nod from its partners.

MMX said in April that it planned to sell its entire portfolio to GoDaddy, after which it is expected the company will be wound down.

The company did not break down which transfer have received full approval, conditional approval, or are still waiting for approval.

It gTLDs are: .cooking, .fishing, .horse, .miami, .rodeo, .vodka, .beer, .luxe, .surf, .nrw, .work, .budapest, .casa, .abogado, .wedding, .yoga, .fashion, .garden, .fit, .vip, .dds, .xxx, .porn, .adult, .sex, .boston, .london and .bayern.

Now celebrities and politicians can block their porn names

Celebrities and holders of unregistered trademarks are now able to buy porn domain blocks from MMX.

The company’s subsidiary, ICM Registry, has broadened its eligibility criteria in order to shift more units of the product, upon which it is banking much of its growth hopes.

Previously, to get an AdultBlock subscription you either had to have previously blocked your brand using ICM’s Sunrise B scheme, which ran in 2011, or to have a trademark registered in the Trademark Clearinghouse.

Now, you don’t need to be in the TMCH, and your trademark does not even need to be legally registered.

Celebrities and politicians are explicitly covered. They have to provide evidence to prove their fame, such as IMDB profiles or movie posters. Politicians need to provide links or documentation proving their political activities or government roles.

AdultBlock prevents brands being registered in MMX’s .porn, .adult, .xxx and .sex gTLDs, as an alternative to defensive registrations. The AdultBlock+ service also blocks homographs.

When .xxx launched a decade ago, thousands of celebrity names, largely harvested from Wikipedia, were blocked by default and free of charge.

ICM even blocked the names of 2011-era ICANN executives and directors. Then-CEO Rod Beckstrom benefited from a block on rodbeckstrom.xxx that survives to this day. Current CEO Göran Marby does not appear to have afforded the same privilege.

My name is also blocked, because it’s a match with goodness knows how many famous people called Kevin Murphy.

Despite the obviously sensitive nature of the TLDs for many brands, there’s been very little cybersquatting in .xxx in the near-decade since its launch. There have been a few dozen UDRP complaints, and most of those were filed in 2012.

MMX, amid poor renewals for its less porny gTLDs, has placed a lot of focus on AdultBlock renewals for its short-term growth.

The company is in the process of having its assets acquired by GoDaddy for $120 million, with the deal expected to close in August, subject to various approvals.

MMX’s year marked by terrible renewals

MMX saw its revenue dip in 2020, and it reported shocking renewal rates at two of its highest-volume gTLDs, according to the company’s annual financial results, published this morning.

The portfolio registry, which is in the process of selling off essentially its entire operating business to GoDaddy, reported revenue of $16.8 million for the year, down from $17.2 million in 2019.

Profit was up very slighty, to $2.9 million from $2.8 million.

The 2019 results included a few one-off gains, including $588,000 from losing a new gTLD auction, which accounted for most of the 2020 revenue decline.

But the company also reported a 19% decline in domains under management, from 2.46 million to 1.99 million, based on some terrible renewal rates in its .vip and .work gTLDs.

The DUM decline can be attributed mostly to .vip, a popular TLD among Chinese speculators, which started 2020 with around 1.4 million domains but finished the year with just over a million.

.work actually ended the year up on where it started, with around 709,000 names under management.

But MMX today disclosed that the renewal rates for .vip and .work were 36% and 18% respectively. In a business where 70%+ is considered healthy, these are some poor numbers indeed.

However, the company discontinued first-year promotions on these TLDs in 2020, focusing instead on selling domains likely to lead to recurring renewal revenue, which lead to 14% (.vip) and 19% (.work) increases in revenue.

Fewer domains. More money.

MMX said that it is seeing these trends continuing into 2021. Public transaction reports show both these TLDs losing 40-50,0000 names in January. The company expects revenue to fall 4% in the first quarter compared to Q1 2020.

One bright spot appears to be “The Great Relese”, the company’s move last month to mark down hundreds of thousands of premium-priced domains. That’s brought in $170,000 since its April 23 launch.

One basket where the company is placing a lot of its eggs is AdultBlock, the trademark protection service it inherited when it acquired ICM Registry a few years back. It enables customers to block their brands in .xxx, .porn, .adult and .sex without actually having to register the names.

The 10-year period ICM allowed brands to block when it launched in 2011 is coming to an end, so MMX is banking on renewals (which retail at $349 to $799 per year before multi-year discounts) to boost revenue.

“While it is early in the AdultBlock Sunrise B renewal period, we are encouraged by Registrar interest and some early sales of this product,” CEO Tony Farrow said in a statement.

This reliance on AdultBlock for short-term organic growth was one of the reasons MMX is selling up to GoDaddy.

The market-leading registrar and fast-emerging registry consolidator agreed to pay $120 million for MMX’s portfolio, which will leave MMX as a shell company only long enough to distribute the cash to investors before fading away quietly.

That deal has an August deadline to close and is dependent on approvals from business partners, ICANN and the Chinese government.

Ahead of GoDaddy acquisition, MMX to scrap premium fees on 725,000 domains

Kevin Murphy, April 12, 2021, Domain Registries

MMX plans to remove hundreds of thousands of domains from its premium list later this month, and reduce prices on a hundred thousand more.

Dubbed The Great Release, the April 23 adjustment will see 725,400 names currently reserved at premium prices released to the available pool at the usual wholesale fee for their respective gTLDs.

Another 102,000 names will keep a premium ticket, but will see their price reduced. MMX says it’s wiped $145 million from the list price of a total of 827,000 names.

The names are available in 26 of MMX’s portfolio of new gTLDs, which GoDaddy currently intends to buy for $120 million.

An MMX spokesperson said that the current pricing had been in place since 2014 and was up for review. He said:

Premium pricing is not something that had been looked at in great detail since it launched its TLDs, and MMX felt that its pricing was out of step with current market trends. MMX also saw that it had held back much of its inventory without ever releasing it, and following a large volume of enquiries over the last 12 months, MMX decided to release all reserved names to get them into the hands of users.

A searchable database of releasing names can be found here, but you’ll need to hand over your email address to access it.

China could block GoDaddy’s $120 million MMX swoop

GoDaddy’s proposed $120 million acquisition of essentially all the meaningful assets of portfolio gTLD player MMX will be subject to Chinese government approval, it emerged this morning.

Following GoDaddy’s bare-bones press release announcing the deal last night, this morning MMX added a whole bunch of flesh, including a list of closing conditions, in its statement to shareholders.

GoDaddy is proposing to buy essentially MMX’s entire operating business — the 28 gTLD registry agreements with ICANN, including the four porn-related strings belonging to subsidiary ICM Registry.

Not only do MMX shareholders have to approve the deal — and holders of 64% of the shares have already promised they will — but ICANN approval will be required for the registry contracts to be reassigned.

This may prove a hurdle or delay if third parties raise competition concerns, but ICANN’s pretty opaque approval process generally doesn’t frown too much on industry consolidation.

Another known unknown is China.

MMX told shareholders that it needs: “Approval of Chinese authorities for the change of control of MMX China (including change of control in respect of relevant licenses held by MMX China permitting it to distribute TLDs in China).”

The reason for this is quite straightforward: in volume terms, quite a lot of MMX’s business has been in China in recent years. Popular sellers such as .vip, with over 800,000 names today, have been driven primarily by Chinese investors.

A local presence (in this case MMX China) and approval from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology is required to legally sell a TLD to Chinese registrants via Chinese registrars.

I’ve no particular reason to believe MIIT will withhold its approval for MMX China to move into GoDaddy’s ownership, but a failure to get the nod from China appears to be a deal-breaker.

MMX’s statement to the markets this morning also provided some clarity on what exactly it is that GoDaddy is proposing to buy.

The gTLDs to be acquired are: .vip,.nrw, .casa, .vodka, .xxx, .fit, .miami, .fishing, .porn, .beer, .surf, .boston, .adult, .yoga, .garden, .abogado, .work, .fashion, .horse, .rodeo, .sex, .wedding, .luxe, .dds, .law, .bayern, .cooking, and .country.

It seems that when Tony Farrow took over as MMX CEO last year, after his predecessor left due to an accounting snafu, he had the portfolio audited and came to the conclusion that it could expect only pretty crappy growth over the coming years.

It had banked on selling expensive defensive trademark blocks in its four porn-themed gTLDs to big brands to make up the shortfall, but then GoDaddy approached in December brandishing its rather large checkbook.

MMX reckons the deal values the company at a 92% premium over its closing share price Tuesday, and 87% and 78% premiums over its 20-day and 90-day average selling price.

.bayern, .nrw and the four porn gTLDs belong to subsidiaries that GoDaddy will acquire outright, but GoDaddy is not proposing to buy MMX itself.

Rather, MMX will likely stay alive and publicly traded long enough to redistribute its cash windfall to investors and sell or wind down about a dozen non-operating subsidiaries.

It has a transition services agreement to manage certain business functions of the registry until January next year, which sounds a bit like what fellow GoDaddy acquisition .CLUB Domains explained to me last night.

After that, London’s Alternative Investment Market rules will treat MMX as a “cash shell”, and it will either have to acquire an operating business from somewhere or make itself the subject of a reverse takeover by a company looking for a quick way to the public markets.