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New gTLD registries get $6 million refund

ICANN has offered new gTLD registries refunds totaling over $6 million after allegedly double-charging them for access to the Trademark Clearinghouse.

At the weekend, its board of directors resolved:

to provide a refund of $5,000, as soon as practicable, to the contracted registries or registry operators (including those that have terminated their contracts or whose TLD delegation has been revoked) that have paid to ICANN the one-time RPM access fee

The five grand fee was levied on each new gTLD as a way of funding the TMCH, which handles trademark validation for sunrise periods and other rights protection mechanisms.

But registries pointed out last October that this kind of thing was precisely what their original $185,000 applications fees were meant to cover.

The Registries Stakeholder Group said back then:

All other systems and programs related to the New gTLD Program were funded from application fees. The TMCH should have been no different and there was no reason to “double-charge” registries for this one piece of the program.

Eight months later, ICANN seems to have reluctantly agreed.

It appears that the refunds — which given over 1,200 TLDs would come to over $6 million in total — will be paid from the roughly $80 million in leftover application fees, rather than ICANN’s tightening operational budget.

While $5,000 isn’t life-changing money, it adds up to a substantial chunk of change for large portfolio registries such as Donuts, which stands to receive roughly $1.5 million.

CentralNic now managing failing .fan and .fans

CentralNic appears to be acting as a caretaker for the failing new gTLDs .fan and .fans.

IANA records show that a company lawyer took over as administrative contact for the pair late last week.

Asiamix Digital, the original registry, is still listed as the sponsor for both, and its ICANN registry agreement does not appear to have been reassigned.

It does not appear to be an acquisition. I hear Asiamix is basically using CentralNic’s TLD management service, as it struggles to remain alive.

CentralNic already acts as the back-end registry for both TLDs.

ICANN hit Asiamix with a breach notice for tens of thousands of dollars of unpaid fees a month ago, terminating its affiliated registrar for the same reasons around the same time.

The registry had attempted to auction off the strings a couple of years ago, unsuccessfully.

While technically based in Hong Kong, ICANN has been sending Asiamix’s compliance notices to an address in Milan, Italy.

All of Asiamix’s official web sites still appear to be non-functional. I bought the .net address listed in its IANA records to make a silly point a month ago and the equivalent .com has since expired too.

.fans has about 1,400 names in its zone file right now, while .fan never actually launched.

MMX rejected three takeover bids before buying .xxx

MMX talked to three other domain name companies about potentially selling itself before deciding instead to go on the offensive, picking up ICM Registry for about $41 million.

The company came out of a year-long strategic review on Friday with the shock news that it had agreed to buy the .xxx, .adult, .porn and .sex registry, for $10 million cash and about $31 million in stock.

CEO Toby Hall told DI today that informal talks about MMX being sold or merged via reverse takeover had gone on with numerous companies over the last 11 months, but that they only proceeded to formal negotiations in three cases.

Hall said he’d been chatting to ICM president and majority owner Stuart Lawley about a possible combination for over two years.

ICM itself talked to four potential buyers before going with MMX’s offer, according to ICM.

Lawley, who’s quitting the company, will become MMX’s largest shareholder following the deal, with about 15% of the company’s shares. Five other senior managers, as well as ICM investor and back-end provider Afilias, will also get stock.

Combined, ICM-related entities will own roughly a quarter of MMX after the deal closes, Hall said.

ICM, with its high-price domains and pre-2012 early-mover advantage, is the much more profitable company.

It had sales of $7.3 million and net income of $3.5 million in 2017, on approximately 100,000 registrations.

Compared to MMX, that’s about the same amount of profit on about half the revenue. It just reported 2017 profit of $3.8 million on revenue of $14.3 million.

There’s doesn’t seem to be much need or desire to start swinging the cost-cutting axe at ICM, in other words. Jobs appear safe.

“This isn’t a business in any way that is in need of restructuring,” Hall said.

He added that he has no plans to ditch Afilias as back-end registry provider for the four gTLDs. MMX’s default back-end for the years since it ditched its self-hosted infrastructure has been Nominet.

The deal reduces MMX’s exposure to the volatile Chinese market, where its .vip TLD has proved popular, accounting for over half of the registry’s domains under management.

It also gives MMX ownership of ICM’s potentially lucrative portfolio of reserved premium names.

There are over 9,700 of these, with a combined buy-now price of just shy of $135 million.

I asked Hall whether he had any plans to get these names sold. He laughed, said “the answer is yes”, and declined to elaborate.

ICM currently has a sales staff of three people, he said.

“It’s a small team, but their track record is exceptional,” he said.

The company’s record, I believe, is sex.xxx, which sold for $3 million. It has many six-figure sales on record. Premiums renew at standard reg fee, around $60.

With the ICM deal, MMX has recast itself after a year of uncertainty as an acquirer rather than an acquisition target.

While many observers — including yours truly — had assumed a sale or merger were on the cards, MMX has gone the other route instead.

It’s secured a $3 million line of credit from its current largest shareholder, London and Capital Asset Management Ltd, “to support future innovation and acquisition orientated activity”.

That’s not a hell of a lot of money to run around snapping up rival gTLDs, but Hall said that it showed that investors are supportive of MMX’s new strategy.

So does this mean MMX is going to start devouring failing gTLDs for peanuts? Not necessarily, but Hall wouldn’t rule anything out.

“Our long-term strategy is ultimately based around being an annuity-based business,” he said. He’s looking at companies with a “strong recurring revenue model”.

About 78% of ICM’s revenue last year came from domain renewals. The remainder was premium sales. For MMX, renewal revenue doubled to $4.8 million in 2017, but that’s still only a third of its overall revenue (though MMX is of course a less-mature business).

So while Hall refused to rule out looking at buying up “struggling” gTLDs, I get the impression he’s not particularly interested in taking risks on unproven strings.

“You can never say never to any opportunity,” he said. “If we come across and asset and for whatever reason we believe we can monetize it, it could become an acquisition target.”

The acquisition is dependent on ICANN approving the handover of registry contracts, something that doesn’t usually present a problem in this kind of M&A.

MMX could announce acquisition this week

New gTLD registry MMX could announce plans to be acquired as early as this week.

The company told the markets last week that its delayed 2017 financial results would be announced in “early May”, along with the “conclusion of the strategic review” it has been teasing investors about for almost a year.

The “strategic review”, announced last May, is exploring “how MMX can participate in a broader industry consolidation” including acquisition or merger.

MMX said last week that “constructive discussions continue to progress”.

It has previously described the duration of the negotiations, initially slated to close last September, as “frustrating”.

Unlike AIM-listed rival CentralNic, which has confirmed it is in reverse-takeover talks with KeyDrive, MMX has not revealed which potential buyer(s) it has been talking to.

MMX, also listed on AIM, has a market cap of £69.3 million ($94.3 million) today.

In January, it informally reported that its 2017 billings are expected to be around the $15.6 million mark, allowing the company to hit operating profitability for the first time.

The company runs 25 new gTLDs solo and five more in partnerships with other companies, but by far and a way the best volume performer is .vip, which accounts for well over half of its registrations largely due to its resonance in China.

$55 billion bank not paying its $6,250 ICANN fees

Kevin Murphy, April 30, 2018, Domain Registries

Kuwait Finance House has become the latest new gTLD registry to get slapped with an ICANN breach notice for not paying its quarterly fees.

The company is a 40-year-old, Sharia-compliant Kuwaiti bank managing assets of $55.52 billion, according to Wikipedia. It has annual revenue in excess of $700 million.

But apparently it has not paid its fixed ICANN dues — $6,250 per quarter — for at least six months, according to ICANN’s breach letter (pdf).

KFH runs .kfh and the Arabic internationalized domain name equivalent .بيتك (.xn--ngbe9e0a) as closed, dot-brand domains.

Neither appears to have any live sites, but both appear to be in their launch ramp-up phase.

ICANN has been nagging the company to pay overdue fees since November, without success, according to its letter.

They’re the third and fourth new gTLD registries to get deadbeat breach notices this month, after .qpon and .fan and .fans.