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Verisign gets approval to sell O.com for $7.85

ICANN is to grant Verisign the right to sell a single-character .com domain name for the first time in over 25 years.

The organization’s board of directors is due to vote next Thursday to approve a complex proposal that would see Verisign auction off o.com, with almost all of the proceeds going to good causes.

“Approval of Amendment to Implement the Registry Service Request from Verisign to Authorize the Release for Registration of the Single-Character, Second-Level Domain, O.COM” is on the consent agenda for the board’s meeting at the conclusion of ICANN 64, which begins Saturday in Kobe, Japan.

Consent agenda placement means that there will likely be no further discussion — and no public discussion — before the board votes to approve the deal.

Verisign plans to auction the domain to the highest bidder, and then charge premium renewal fees that would essentially double the purchase price over a period of 25 years.

But the registry, already under scrutiny over its money-printing .com machine, would be banned from profiting from the sale.

Instead, Verisign would only receive its base registry fee — currently $7.85 per year — with the rest being held by an independent third party that would distribute the funds to worthy non-profit causes.

ICANN had referred the Verisign proposal, first put forward in December 2016, to the US government, and the Department of Justice gave it the nod in December 2017.

There was also a public comment period last May.

The request almost certainly came about due to Overstock.com’s incessant lobbying. The retailer has been obsessed with obtaining o.com for well over a decade, but was hamstrung by the legacy policy, enshrined in the .com registry agreement, that forbids the sale of single-character domains.

Whoever else wants to buy o.com, they’ll be bidding against Overstock, which has a trademark.

It’s quite possible nobody else will bid.

When Overstock briefly rebranded as O.co several years ago — it paid $350,000 for that domain — it said it saw 61% of its traffic going to o.com instead.

All single-character .com names that had not already been registered were reserved by IANA for technical reasons in 1993, well before ICANN took over DNS policy.

Today, only q.com, z.com and x.com are registered. Billionaire Elon Musk, who used x.com to launch PayPal, reacquired that domain for an undisclosed sum in 2017. GMO Internet bought z.com for $6.8 million in 2014.

With the sale of o.com now a near certainty, it is perhaps only a matter of time before more single-character .com names are also released.

No gTLD approved after 2012 has a restriction on single-character domains.

As a matter of disclosure: several years ago I briefly provided some consulting/writing services to a third party in support of the Verisign and Overstock positions on the release of single-character domain names, but I have no current financial interest in the matter.

Justice gives nod to O.com auction

Kevin Murphy, December 18, 2017, Domain Registries

The US Department of Justice does not intend to prevent Verisign from auctioning off the single-letter domain o.com.

Aaron Hoag, chief of the department’s Technology & Financial Services Section, told ICANN in a letter (pdf) that it does not intend to probe Verisign’s proposal.

The letter reads in its entirety:

Your letter dated December 7, 2017, to Makan Delrahim, Assistant Attorney General of the Antitrust Division, regarding VeriSign’s proposal to auction O.COM, has been referred to the Technology & Financial Services Section for review. After careful consideration of the matter, the Division can report that it does not intend to open an investigation into the proposed auction described in the attachment to your letter.

Verisign asked ICANN’s permission to auction o.com, with most of the the proceeds going to good causes, after over a decade of nagging from retailer Overstock.com, which desperately wants to own the currently reserved name.

It would set a precedent for the company to sell off the remaining 22 single-letter domains, not to mention the 10 digits, which are all currently reserved due to a decades-old technical policy no longer considered necessary.

Verisign would only receive its $7.85 base registry fee from the sale, despite the fact that single-letter domains could easily fetch seven or eight figures.

The company asked ICANN for permission to release the name via its Registry Services Evaluation Process last month.

ICANN said earlier this month that it had no objection on technical grounds, but referred it to US competition authorities for a review.

With the DoJ apparently not interested, the door is open for ICANN to approve the RSEP before the end of the year, meaning Verisign could carry out the auction in 2018.

The big question now is whether anyone other than Overstock will want to take part in the auction. Overstock has US trademarks on “O.com”, despite the fact that it’s never actually owned the domain.

ICANN punts o.com auction to US watchdogs

Kevin Murphy, December 11, 2017, Domain Registries

Verisign’s proposed auction of the domain o.com might have a negative effect on competition and has been referred to US regulators.

That’s according to ICANN’s response to the .com registry’s request to release the domain, which is among the 23 single-letter domains currently reserved under the terms of its contract.

ICANN has determined that the release “might raise significant competition issues” and has therefore been referred to “to the appropriate governmental competition authority”.

It’s forwarded Verisign’s request to the US Department of Justice.

Verisign late last month asked ICANN if it could release o.com to auction as a test that could presumably lead to other single-character .com names being released in future.

The plan is for a charity auction, in which almost all the proceeds are donated to internet-related good causes.

Only the company running the auction would make any significant money; Verisign would just take its standard $7.85 annual fee.

ICANN told the company that it could find no technical reason that the release could not go ahead.

The only barrier is the fact that Verisign arguably has government-approved, cash-printing, market dominance and is therefore in a sensitive political position.

Whether its profitless plan will be enough to see the auction given the nod remains to be seen.

A certain bidder in the proposed auction would be Overstock.com, the online retailer, which has been pressuring ICANN and Verisign for the release of O.com for well over a decade and even owns trademarks covering the domain.

Disclosure: several years ago I briefly provided some consulting/writing services to a third party in support of the Verisign and Overstock positions on the release of single-character domain names, but I have no current financial interest in the matter.

Verisign wants to auction off O.com for charity

Kevin Murphy, December 1, 2017, Domain Registries

The internet could soon gets just its fourth active single-character .com domain name, after Verisign revealed plans to auction off o.com for charity.

The company has asked ICANN to allow it to release just one of the 23 remaining one-letter .com domains, which are currently reserved under the terms of the .com registry agreement.

It’s basically a proof of concept that would lead to this contractual restriction being lifted entirely.

O.com has been picked as the guinea pig, because of “long-standing interest” in the domain, according to Verisign.

Overstock.com, the $1.8 billion-a-year US retailer, is known to have huge interest in the name.

The company acquired o.co from .CO Internet for $350,000 during the ccTLD’s 2010 relaunch, then embarked upon a disastrous rebranding campaign that ended when the company estimated it was losing 61% of its type-in traffic to o.com.

Overstock has obsessed over its unobtainable prize for over a decade and would almost certainly be involved in any auction for the domain.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that Overstock pressured Verisign into requesting the release of o.com.

Despite the seven or eight figures that a single-letter .com domain could fetch, Verisign’s cut of the auction proceeds would be just $7.85, its base registry fee.

Regardless, it has a payment schedule in mind that would see the winning bidder continue to pay premium renewal fees for 25 years, eventually doubling the sale price.

The winner would pay their winning bid immediately and get a five-year registration, but then would have to pay 5% of that bid to renew the domain for years six through 25.

In other words, if the winning bid was $1 million, the annual renewal fee after the first five years would be $50,000 and the total amount paid would eventually be $2 million.

All of this money, apart from the auction provider’s cut, would go to a trust that would distribute the funds to internet-focused non-profit organizations, such as those promoting security or open protocols.

There’s also a clause that would seem to discourage domain investors from bidding. The only way to transfer the domain would be if the buyer was acquired entirely, though this could be presumably circumvented with the use of a shell company.

It’s an elaborate auction plan, befitting of the fact that one-character .com domains are super rare.

Only x.com, q.com and z.com are currently registered and it’s Verisign policy to reserve them in the unlikely event they should ever expire.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk this July reacquired x.com, the domain he used to launch PayPal in the 1990s, back from PayPal for an undisclosed sum.

Z.com was acquired by GMO Internet for $6.8 million in 2014.

Single-character domains are typically not reserved in the ICANN contracts of other gTLDs, whether pre- or post-2012, though it’s standard practice for the registry to reserve them for auction anyway.

Verisign’s reservations in .com and .net are a legacy of IANA policy, pre-ICANN and have been generally considered technically unnecessary for some years.

Still, there’s been a reluctance to simply hand Verisign, already a money-printing machine through accident of history, another windfall of potentially hundreds of millions of dollars by allowing it to sell off the names for profit. Hence the elaborate plan with the O.com trust fund.

The proposal to release O.com requires a contractual amendment, so Verisign has filed a Registry Services Evaluation Process request (pdf) with ICANN that is now open for public comment.

As a matter of disclosure: several years ago I briefly provided some consulting/writing services to a third party in support of the Verisign and Overstock positions on the release of single-character domain names, but I have no current financial interest in the matter.

Overstock.com slows down O.co rebranding

Kevin Murphy, November 14, 2011, Domain Registries

Overstock.com is throttling its transition to the O.co brand after discovering consumers typed o.com even after watching the company’s commercials, according to a report.

The company’s $350,000 purchase of and subsequent rebranding around the o.co domain was possibly the single biggest single marketing coup for .CO Internet, the .co registry, to date.

But now it intends to keep the Overstock.com brand in the US for the time being, while using O.co overseas and on a new iPad app, according to a report in AdAge.

The O.co Coliseum, the stadium in Oakland for which Overstock bought the naming rights, will continue to bear the O.co name.

AdAge quoted Overstock president Jonathon Johnson saying that “a good portion” of people viewing its commercials tried to visit o.com, which is a non-resolving registry-reserved name, instead.

“We were going too fast and people were confused, which told us we didn’t do a good job,” he told AdAge. “We’re still focused on getting to O.co, just at a slower pace… We’re not flipping back, we’re just refocusing.”

This is obviously bad news for commercial new top-level domain applicants, many of which will be looking for all-important anchor tenants to validate their brands at launch.

Marketing people like to refer to the measurable results of others before pulling the trigger on new initiatives. The O.co case is unlikely to create enthusiasm for new TLDs.

On the other hand, it’s commonly believed that when it comes to breaking the .com mindset in the US, it will take more than a trickle of new TLDs such as .co. It will take a flood.

.CO Internet has always taken the position that .co adoption will take time, and that the ICANN new gTLD program will help its cause by raising awareness of non-.com domains.

Overstock.com: a registry’s best friend

Kevin Murphy, September 21, 2011, Domain Registries

O.co, the company formerly known as Overstock.com, has bought the domain name o.info directly from registry manager Afilias for an undisclosed amount.

It’s the first single-character sale Afilias has announced since ICANN gave it the go-ahead to release one and two-letter names from reserved status in April 2010.

What makes it particularly interesting is that O.co has agreed to build a separate web site at o.info, using the domain for the purpose suggested by the TLD string.

The idea of allocating a valuable name to a big brand in exchange for a use commitment – the “founders program” model – is of course now a standard part of a TLD registry’s marketing toolkit.

It’s more unusual too see the same tactics used to promote a decade-old gTLD.

O.co CEO Patrick Byrne said in a statement:

We will use O.info as a website destination to consolidate useful consumer information. The .info domain is the logical destination for visitors to find product information, user manuals, buying guides, manufacturer and brand reviews, video demonstrations and recall notices.

The price has not been disclosed. It could easily be in the six-figures, extrapolating from the $350,000 the company dropped on o.co last year.

On the other hand, it could be lower.

I feel certain that .CO Internet would have handed over o.co for free if it had known how much great publicity it would bring; it’s possible Afilias may have sacrificed part of its windfall in the hope of reaping some marketing benefits too.

It has 25 more letters to sell, after all.

Overstock becomes .co’s anchor tenant from heaven

Overstock.com is to slap its new brand, O.co, on the Oakland Raiders stadium in California, bringing yet more exposure to the .co top-level domain.

The company bought the stadium naming rights back in April, and was pushed into the rebranding now because the sign needs to go up, according to AdAge.

Presumably, whenever American football fans tune into a broadcast or read the sports pages, they’re now going to be exposed to the .co brand.

Not many TLDs have that claim to fame. According to Wikipedia, the only other stadium in the US currently named after a domain is the Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Arizona.

Overstock has been so good for .CO Internet’s marketing, it’s easy to forget that the company actually paid for the domain, splashing out $350,000 a year ago.

I’d hazard a guess that if the registry had known just how prolific the O.co brand would become, it would have given the name away for free.

Currently, the domain o.co redirects to overstock.com, but the site logo refers to “O.co, also known as Overstock.com”.

What O.co says about new TLDs

Kevin Murphy, January 21, 2011, Domain Registries

Overstock.com’s shock rebranding move yesterday is not only a big marketing coup for .CO Internet, it also may be good news for new top-level domains in general.

In a pair of US TV commercials (available here and here if you’re overseas) Overstock has started calling itself O.co, the domain it bought privately from the .co registry for $350,000 last July.

When I wrote, last November, “Overstock’s .com domain is its brand, and that’s not about to change”, I may well have been wrong. Go to overstock.com and look at the logo.

This is good evidence, if it were needed, that the very same trademark interests currently opposed to ICANN’s new TLDs program are also keenly aware of the benefits.

Overstock has had its eyes on O.com for over five years, and fought unsuccessfully within ICANN to have single-letter .com domains released from the VeriSign reserved list.

It was not until .co relaunched last summer – essentially a new TLD – that Overstock got the opportunity to register a domain (almost?) as good as the one it wanted.

I find this interesting because Overstock, like many other major brand owners, has been a vocal opponent of new TLDs.

In a July 2009 letter to ICANN (pdf), for example, Overstock expresses many of the same views about new TLDs that are still being expressed by the trademark interests currently holding up the program.

I’m not suggesting that Overstock’s eagerness to use O.co negates its specific criticisms of the new TLDs program, but its conflicting behavior does seem to suggest a certain degree of cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand, it opposed new TLDs. But when a new TLD launched, it grasped the opportunity with both hands and rebranded the whole company around it.

If what I hear is true, many of the companies publicly opposed to new TLDs are also the ones simultaneously investigating their own “.brand” domains.

Could Overstock’s latest move represent a pent-up demand for new TLDs among big brands? What does that mean for the future of .com as the internet’s premium real estate?

Overstock to bid for o.co.uk next month?

Kevin Murphy, November 23, 2010, Domain Sales

Overstock.com, which seems to have made registering single-letter domain names a key part of its branding strategy, likely has o.co.uk next in its sights.

The company drew headlines recently when it paid $350,000 for o.co and subsequently used it in its TV ads, and again yesterday when it picked up o.co.za for $9,000.

While it’s well known that o.com is the ultimate prize, Overstock has also been laying the groundwork for buying o.co.uk for over three years.

Nominet, the .uk registry, is set to open up the first of two sunrise periods on double and single-character .co.uk domains on December 1, and I expect Overstock already has its application ready to go.

It might not be an entirely straightforward bid, however.

Under the Nominet sunrise rules, holders of UK trademarks in use before January 1, 2008 are eligible to apply for their short domains.

Overstock, it turns out, has had a registered trademark on o.co.uk since August 2008.

It applied for the UK trademark in January 2008, the same month that Nominet’s policy-setting committees first started discussing the release of single-letter domains.

As far as I can tell, the trademark is considered valid from August 1, 2007, the same time Overstock was granted its US trademark on o.co.uk.

But can the company prove it was “using” the trademark prior to January 1, 2008, given that the domain was reserved? It does not appear to have a UK trademark on the letter O by itself.

One way or the other, I expect Overstock to eventually win the domain. Under Nominet’s rules, contested domains will go to auction, and Overstock has already proved it has deep pockets.

The company also has US trademarks on other O domains that it does not and cannot currently own, including o.info, o.com, and o.eu. It successfully registered and uses o.biz.

It also has a US trademark on o.de, but that domain appears to be currently registered to a German domain investor.

What does the Overstock commercial mean for .co?

Kevin Murphy, November 5, 2010, Domain Registries

Judging by the number of exclamation marks being deployed over on the .CO Internet blog today, it’s a fairly safe bet that the company is rather happy with Overstock.com’s latest TV commercial.

It’s the first high-profile commercial to feature a .co domain, in this case o.co, which could go some way to raise the newly relaunched TLD’s profile in the US.

While it’s a nice first step for .CO, I wouldn’t say its TLD has necessarily “arrived” yet, on the basis of this ad, for a few reasons.

First, what’s this “shortcut” business?

Overstock.com commercial

Should this be troubling?

The biggest marketing coups .CO has inked to date have been for x.co and t.co, URL shorteners offered by Go Daddy and Twitter respectively. Now, Overstock is using its o.co as a “shortcut”, which bounces visitors to overstock.com.

True, Overstock’s .com domain is its brand, and that’s not about to change, but its use of o.co as a “shortcut” may perpetuate the short-term perception that .co’s primary purpose is short URLs.

On the upside, the company is actively encouraging customers to type a .co domain into their browsers.

Getting this “type-in awareness” is something I know that .CO Internet is looking to foster, something that the Twitter deal does not necessarily bring to the table.

It’s also encouraging that Overstock feels comfortable using a .co domain where it does not own the equivalent .com. That said, nobody does. Most single-letter .com domains are still reserved.

While this may be a branding risk for Overstock, could it actually be helpful for .CO, training fat-fingered users the difference between .com and .co domains? It seems possible.

It’s interesting to note that Overstock is using “www.” for its .co, but not for its .com, presumably in order to train viewers that “this is a URL”, much the same as .com domains were once uniformly advertised with the www prefix.

A reliable sign that .co has “arrived” would be when an advertiser feels happy to drop the www.