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Extortion.sucks — Vox Pop CEO defends “under-priced” $25,000 sunrise fee

Kevin Murphy, December 19, 2013, Domain Registries

Vox Populi Registry, the .sucks new gTLD applicant backed by Momentous Corp, is to charge trademark owners $25,000 to participate in its Sunrise period, should it win the TLD.

Not only that, but it’s become the first new gTLD applicant that I’m aware of to start taking pre-registration fees from trademark owners while it’s still in a contention set with other applicants.

At first glance, it looks like plain old trademark-owner extortion, taken to an extreme we’ve never seen before.

But after 45 minutes talking to Vox Pop CEO John Berard this evening, I’m convinced that it’s worse than that.

The company is setting itself up as the IP lobby’s poster child for everything that is wrong with the new gTLD program.

If Vox Pop wins the .sucks contention set — it’s competing against Donuts and Top Level Spectrum — it plans to charge trademark owners $25,000 to participate in Sunrise and $25,000 a year thereafter.

Registrations during general availability, whether they match a trademark or not, will cost $300 a year.

During the pre-registration period, the Sunrise fee is $2,500 and the “Priority Reservation” fee is $250.

The Sunrise fee is, I believe, higher than any sunrise fee in any TLD ever to launch.

But Berard said that he believes Vox Pop’s .sucks proposition is, if anything, “under-priced”.

“Most companies spend far more than $25,000 a month on a public relations agency, most companies spend more than $25,000 a month on a Google ad campaign,” he said.

“Companies spend millions of dollars a year on customer service. We view .sucks as an element of customer service on the part of companies,” he said.

Berard, a 40-year veteran of the public relations business, said that he believes .sucks represents an opportunity for brands to engage with their customers, gaining valuable insight that could help them improve product development or customer service.

“The last thing I view .sucks as is a domain name. That’s the last value proposition for .sucks,” he said. “The primary value proposition is as a key and innovative part of customer service, retention and loyalty.”

It’s about giving companies “the ability to bring internet criticism and commentary out of the shadows and into the light” and “an opportunity to actually have a legitimate ability to correct misconceptions and engage, in much the way they’re doing now with Facebook”, he said.

It’s all about helping companies create a dialogue, in other words.

But Berard said that Vox Pop does not intend to launch any value-added services on .sucks domains.

While a domain name may be the “last value proposition” of .sucks, it is also the only thing that Vox Pop is actually planning to sell.

Asked to justify the $25,000 Sunrise fee, at first Berard pointed to policies that he said will ensure a transparent space for conversation.

“A company might not have to register its brand in .sucks, because if someone else does the policies and practices that we hope to deploy give that company a transparent opportunity to participate,” Berard said. “There’s no chasing unknown people down dark alleys for unfounded criticism. It will all be done in the light of day.”

“We have built-in policies that prevent sites from being parked pages,” he said. “The site must be put to that use — of customer service — whether you are the company that owns [the brand] or a customer that wants to complain about it.”

There was some confusion during our conversation about what the policies are going to be.

At first it sounded like companies would be obliged to run criticism/conversation sites targeting their own brands or risk losing their domains, but Berard later called to clarify that while pages cannot be parked under the policy, they can be left inactive.

It will be possible, in other words, for a company to register its brand.sucks and leave the associated site dark.

The registry would also have an “authenticated Whois database”, he said, though it would allow registrants to use privacy services.

There would also be prohibitions on cyber-bullying and porn in .sucks, if Vox Pop wins it. It has committed to these policies in its Public Interest Commitments (pdf)

But the company does not appear to be doing anything that ICM Registry did not already do when it launched .xxx a couple of years ago, when it comes to making brand owners’ lives easier.

In fact, it’s planning to do a lot less, while being literally a hundred times more expensive.

By contrast, if Donuts wins .sucks, brand owners will be able to defensively block their marks using the Domain Protected Marks List for $3,000 over five years, which would cover all of Donuts 200-300 new gTLDs.

There doesn’t appear to be any good reason Vox Pop is charging prices well above the market rate, in my view, other than the fact that the company reckons it can get away with it.

In what may well be a deliberate move to put pressure on trademark owners, Vox Pop is also the first registry I’ve encountered to say it will do a 30-day, as opposed to a 60-day, Sunrise period.

Under ICANN rules, registries have to give at least 30 days warning before a 30-day Sunrise starts, but once it’s underway they are allowed to allocate domains on a first-come-first-served basis.

All of the 30-odd registries currently in Sunrise have opted for the traditional 60-day option instead, where no domains are allocated until the end of the period.

There’s also the question of accepting Sunrise pre-registrations before Vox Pop even knows whether it will get to run .sucks.

There are two other applicants and Berard said that he reckons the contention set is likely to go to an ICANN last-resort auction.

Judging by ICANN’s preliminary timetable, the .sucks auction wouldn’t happen until roughly September next year, by my reckoning.

Anyone who pre-registers today will have to wait a year before they can use (or not) their domain, if they even get to register it at all.

Any money that is taken during the pre-reg period will be refunded if Vox Pop fails to launch.

In the meantime, it will be sitting in Momentous’ bank account where the company, presumably, will be able to use it to try to win the .sucks auction.

Trademark owners, in my view, should vote with their wallets and stay the hell away from Vox Pop’s pre-registration service.

I’m not usually in the business of endorsing one new gTLD applicant over another, but I think Vox Pop’s Sunrise pricing is going to make the whole new gTLD program — and probably also ICANN and the domain name industry itself — look bad.

It’s a horrible reminder of a time when domain name companies were often little better than spammers, operating at the margins and beyond of acceptable conduct, and it makes me sad.

The new gTLD program is about increasing choice and competition in the TLD space, it’s not supposed to be about applicants bilking trademark owners for whatever they think they can get away with.

Donuts explains its premium pricing strategy

Kevin Murphy, December 17, 2013, Domain Registries

Add Donuts to the list of registries planning to use .tv-style variable pricing after their new gTLDs start to go to general availability next year.

COO Richard Tindal told DI last night that each of its upcoming registries could have “two, three, four, five, six — it varies — levels of buy-it-now pricing”.

He was referring to pricing during general availability, not any of Donuts’ special launch phases.

The actual number of registry-reserved names held for auction or future promotional purposes is likely to be quite small — often under 20 names per TLD — Tindal said.

Instead, Donuts wants to get the names it has identified as “premium” to market as quickly as possible, but with a higher annual price than the base registry fee. He said:

Let’s take .clothing, that’s coming out at the moment.

There’ll be a small — very small — number of reserved names for which we may do an auction later

The vast, vast majority of the names are first-come-first-served buy-it-now — but within Donuts TLDs, at more than one price within a TLD.

So in .clothing the standard names will be one price, then there’ll be another group of names that are premium for a higher price, and another group of names that are higher still that are premiums as well, and potentially even another group.

Tindal didn’t want to give specifics, but indicated that most premiums could carry an annual fee of under $1,000.

“Your ball-park standard name is a $10, $20, $30 name, ish, retail,” he said. “And your premium name is in the hundreds of dollars a year, typically. It varies.”

“Generally, ball-park-speaking, the vast majority of our names will be well, well under $1,000 a year,” he said.

He added that the tiers should be obvious when pre-registering names at one of Donuts’ accredited registrars.

I experimented a bit on 101domain, where the base retail price for a .clothing domain is currently $34.99 a year.

I found that used.clothing and winter.clothing, for example, both carry a $400 price tag, hot.clothing and large.clothing are $49.50 each, while vintage.clothing and designer.clothing appear to be reserved.

Those are the retail prices, of course, which include the registrar’s mark-up. While they’re for pre-registered names, I’m not expecting the GA prices to be much different.

“These are very attractively priced names, in our view, even the premium ones we think are attractive to people,” Tindal said. “We want registrars to make some margin, we want registrants to have room for the value of the name to increase as well.”

He didn’t say how many names will be in the higher pricing tiers — it will vary by gTLD.

“We believe premiums will be a small percentage of names under management,” he said.

The tiers will be the same across all of Donuts TLDs, he said, but each given TLD may only use a subset. So if there are six possible tiers, .example may only use three of them.

Donuts does not currently plan to operate a “founders program” for its gTLDs, Tindal said.

“We just want to get these names out and in the hands of users,” he said. Donuts’ market is primarily small and medium sized enterprises.

Donuts is not the first to reveal tiered pricing for new gTLD names.

Top Level Domain Holdings recently laid out a similar pricing strategy. Its Minds + Machines registrar is already taking pre-registrations on names with renewal fees ranging into many thousands of dollars per yer for premium names.

What Box and Plan Bee have also started selling pre-registrations via their registrars that indicate tiered pricing.

Prior to new gTLDs, the only notable TLD with variable pricing was Verisign’s repurposed ccTLD, .tv.

Blocked trademarks still eligible for Donuts sunrises

Kevin Murphy, December 13, 2013, Domain Registries

Donuts has confirmed that it is to allow trademark owners to participate in its new gTLD Sunrise periods even if their marks appear on name collisions block-lists.

The decision means that companies will be able to choose whether to grab names matching their marks during Sunrise, or take the risk that they will be released at a later date.

Donuts, like all gTLD registries, has been given block-lists for each of its TLDs. The idea is to avoid collisions with names already in use on private name-spaces behind corporate firewalls.

Lots of these blocked names match or contain well-known trademarks.

(Trademark owners can use the DI PRO collisions search engine to figure out which gTLDs have been asked to block their marks.)

While this appears at first glance to be good news for mark owners that just want their marks blocked in as many TLDs as possible, it also poses potential risks.

Blocked names are not likely to be blocked until after the first wave of Sunrise periods are over, and ICANN’s unblocking process has not yet been written.

For a company that wants to register its brand in a new gTLD, but is on a block-list, that could cause problems.

By allowing companies to participate in Sunrise regardless, Donuts is giving them a way to mitigate the risk of somebody else grabbing their brands in future.

Donuts does not plan to allow any of these names to be activated in the DNS until the ICANN collisions mitigation plan has been finalized, however.

So companies could find themselves paying for Sunrise names but unable to use them until some unspecified future date — if at all.

IPO warns about premium loopholes in new gTLD trademark protection

Kevin Murphy, December 4, 2013, Domain Policy

It seems like it’s been an age since we last heard the intellectual property lobby pushing for stronger rights protection mechanisms in new gTLDs, but they’re back just in time for the first launches.

The Intellectual Property Owners Association has written to ICANN this week to warn about loopholes in the standard new gTLD Registry Agreement related to premium name reservations that the IPO said “will adversely affect trademark rights holders”.

The letter (pdf) makes reference to two specific parts of the contract.

Specification 5 enables registries to reserve up to 100 names “necessary for the operation or promotion of the TLD” in section 3.2 and an unlimited number of names in section 3.3.

Section 3.3 is vague enough that I’m aware of new gTLD applicants that still don’t know whether it allows them to reserve an unlimited number of “premium” names or not.

However, most new gTLD registries I’ve talked to appear to be convinced that it does. DotKiwi’s recently announced premium plan seems to be taking advantage of 3.3.

The IPO is worried that massive lists of premium names will wind up containing lots of strings matching trademarks, which will prevent mark holders from defensively registering during Sunrise.

Worse, the IPO said it could lead to registries milking trademark owners for huge fees to register their “premium” marks. It said:

such reservations would invite the abuse of protected marks. For instance, Registry Operators may reserve the marks of protected brands to leverage premium sales. Further, Registry Operators may use this ability to release names to market competitors of the brand owners.

The counter argument, of course, is that owners of spurious trademarks on generic terms could game Sunrise periods to get their hands of potentially valuable domain names (cf. the .eu sunrise)

The IPO wants ICANN to expand the Trademark Clearinghouse to send Trademark Claims notices to new gTLD registries when they reserve a name matching a listed trademark.

It also wants a new dispute procedure that mark owners could use to get names released from reserved status. It would be like UDRP, but modified to allow for registries to reserve dictionary words related to their gTLD strings, the IPO said.

If my sense of the mood of ICANN’s leadership during last month’s Buenos Aires meeting is anything to go by, I can’t see these last-minute requests for changes to RPMs getting much traction, but you never know.

Superstitious launch planned for Chinese gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, December 4, 2013, Domain Registries

TLD Registry plans to time its Chinese new gTLD launch dates to coincide with days considered lucky in Chinese astrology.

The Sunrise period for .在线 (“.online”) and .中文网 (“.chinesewebsite”) will start January 17 and end March 17.

According to the registry:

Both the start and end days of Sunrise fall on highly auspicious days for “starting new businesses” in the ancient Chinese almanac. The Chinese almanac was created during the Han Dynasty around 200BC, and continues to be an important guide to the lives and businesses of more than a billion Chinese people.

A landrush period will follow starting March 20, “an auspicious day for ‘breaking ground'”, and ending April 24.

TLD Registry will also run a live/online auction for “the most valuable and sought-after” names in Macau on March 21.

General availability is slated for April 28, “a highly auspicious date for ‘starting new businesses’ and ‘grand openings'”

It’s cute marketing, and no mistake.

The Chinese almanac, like all astrology, is of course utter nonsense.

DotKiwi puts $7 million of premium names on sale

Kevin Murphy, December 4, 2013, Domain Registries

DotKiwi has put NZD 8.5 milion ($7 million) of “premium” domain names on the market in advance of the delegation of .kiwi, which it expects to happen this week.

There are 4,668 names on sale right now, ranging in price from NZD 501.50 ($410) to NZD 124,626.71 ($102,000).

The highest price belongs to hotels.kiwi.

The average asking price is NZD 1,832.39 ($1,500).

The registry said:

All premium names have been valued in collaboration with third parties that specialise in valuing domain names around the globe. The value of a .kiwi premium name is determined using historical sales data, search engine popularity and traffic.

There are 32 domains priced at over $10,000. These are the top 10 highest-priced names:

hotels.kiwi124,626.71 NZD
cruises.kiwi83,193.27 NZD
clothes.kiwi47,248.89 NZD
games.kiwi46,212.14 NZD
auto.kiwi41,579.89 NZD
travel.kiwi39,947.41 NZD
dentist.kiwi30,000.00 NZD
love.kiwi28,728.59 NZD
teaching.kiwi26,933.29 NZD
blackjack.kiwi26,932.42 NZD

Unlike other new gTLD registries that have introduced tiered renewal pricing for premium names, DotKiwi plans to charge a standard NZD 40 ($33) annual fee for premiums.

DotKiwi tells us that the names have all been reserved, so they’re ineligible for the mandatory Sunrise period (expected to start later this month).

But the names won’t actually be activated until after Sunrise is over. Then, they’ll still be subject to the Trademark Claims service, which alerts trademark owners when their mark has been registered.

First English new gTLD Sunrise periods start today

Kevin Murphy, November 26, 2013, Domain Registries

Donuts today kicks off the Sunrise periods for its first seven new gTLDs, the first English-language strings to start their priority registration periods for trademark owners.

The big question for mark holders today is whether to participate in Sunrise, or whether Donuts’ proprietary Domain Protected Marks List is the more cost-efficient way to go.

Sunrise starts today and runs until January 24 for .bike, .clothing, .guru, .holdings, .plumbing, .singles and .ventures. Donuts is planning seven more for December 3.

These are “end-date” Sunrises, meaning that no domains are awarded to participants until the full 60-day period is over. It’s not first-come, first-served, in other words.

Where more than one application for any given domain is received, Donuts will hold an auction after Sunrise closes to decide who gets to register the name.

The primary requirement for participating in Sunrise is, per ICANN’s base rules, that the trademark has been submitted to and validated by the Trademark Clearinghouse.

Donuts is not enforcing additional eligibility rules.

The company has not published its wholesale Sunrise application fee, but registrars have revealed some details.

Com Laude said that the Donuts “Sunrise Participation Fee” is $80, which will be the same across all of its gTLDs. Registrars seem to be marking this up by about 50%.

Tucows, for example, is asking its OpenSRS resellers for $120 per name, with an additional first-year reg fee ranging between $20 and $45 depending on gTLD.

Lexsynergy, which yesterday reported on Twitter a spike in TMCH submissions ahead of today’s launch, is charging between £91 ($147) and £99 ($160) for the application and first year combined.

The question for Trademark Owners is whether they should participate in the alternative Domain Protected Marks List or not.

The DPML is likely to be much cheaper for companies that want to protect a lot of marks across a lot of Donuts gTLDs.

A five-year DPML fee can be around $3,000, which works out to $3 per domain per year if Donuts winds up with 200 gTLDs in its portfolio.

Companies will not be able to actually use the domains blocked by the DPML, however, so it only makes sense for a wholly defensive blocking strategy.

In addition, DPML does not prevent a eligible mark owner from registering a DPML domain during Sunrise.

A policy Donuts calls “DPML Override” means that if somebody else owns a matching trademark, in any jurisdiction, they’ll be able to get “your” domain even if you’ve paid for a DPML entry.

I should point out that Donuts is simply following ICANN rules here. There are few ways for new gTLD registries to make names ineligible for Sunrise within their contracts.

Trademark owners are therefore going to have to decide whether it’s worth the risk of sticking to a strictly DPML strategy, or whether it might make more sense to do Sunrise on their most mission-critical marks.

DotShabaka Registry was the first new gTLD operator to go to Sunrise, with شبكة., though the lack of Arabic strings in the TMCH means it’s largely an exercise in contractual compliance.

RightOfTheDot to manage .club’s premium strategy

Kevin Murphy, November 14, 2013, Domain Services

.CLUB Domains has selected RightOfTheDot to manage its premium and founders program domains strategy.

The company named “a.club, 888.club, chess.club, poker.club, insurance.club, golf.club country.club, car.club” as examples of “category killer” names that RightOfTheDot will try to find homes for.

.CLUB signed its Registry Agreement with ICANN late last week and plans to go to Sunrise in January.

It’s among the top 30 most popular new gTLDs being pre-registered at 1&1 right now, and recently said it’s hoping to have five million domains under management within five years, an ambitious target.

RightOfTheDot is the new gTLD consultancy founded by domainers Mike Berkens and Monte Cahn.

Over half the world’s biggest brands will be blocked in new gTLDs

Kevin Murphy, November 12, 2013, Domain Registries

More than half of the world’s most-famous brand names already stand to benefit from blocks in new gTLDs, due to the name collisions policy introduced by ICANN recently.

That’s the preliminary conclusion of a quick analysis of the 37 block-lists already published.

Using Interbrand’s list of the top 100 most valuable brands, we find that only 32 do not appear anywhere — either as strings or substrings — on the collisions lists we have today.

Fifty-nine brands are to be blocked as exact matches in at least one new gTLD. Five brands are blocked exactly in 10 or more.

Brand owners blocked in collision lists may not have to fork out for as many defensive registrations, but may also face complications when registries finally start whittling down their lists.

We present the full table of results below, for which the following explanations might be needed:

  • Brand/String — The brands have been normalized to ASCII strings, removing punctuation not compatible with the DNS protocol and converting accented characters to their unaccented equivalents (for example, “Nescafé” becomes “Nescafe”). For DI PRO subscribers, each string links to a search on the database for that string.
  • Exact Matches — The number of gTLDs (currently out of 37) in which this exact-match brand will be blocked.
  • Unique Strings — The number of strings containing this brand that appear on block-lists. In some cases this may provide misleading results due to the usual overkill you get when matching substrings. For example, two-character brands such as 3M and HP get a lot of hits, the vast majority of which do not appear to relate to the brand itself, whereas every hit for Google does in fact refer to the brand.
Brand/StringExact MatchesUnique Strings
3m0409
accenture12
adidas12
adobe01
allianz00
amazon75
americanexpress01
apple1410
audi114
avon21
axa014
bmw23
budweiser00
burberry00
canon311
cartier00
caterpillar00
chevrolet00
cisco18
citi18
coca-cola21
colgate00
corona11
danone00
dell654
discovery34
disney37
duracell00
ebay101
facebook219
ferrari01
ford321
gap125
ge111099
gillette00
goldmansachs00
google2426
gucci05
hm1139
harley-davidson11
heineken00
heinz01
hermes41
honda37
hp8303
hsbc21
hyundai12
ibm815
ikea22
intel15
jpmorgan00
jackdaniels00
johndeere00
johnniewalker00
johnsonjohnson00
kelloggs00
kfc213
kia119
kleenex00
loreal00
louisvuitton00
mastercard00
mcdonalds14
mercedes-benz21
microsoft93
moetchandon00
morganstanley11
mtv215
nescafe00
nestle00
nike112
nintendo21
nissan01
nokia65
oracle44
pampers01
panasonic12
pepsi00
philips22
pizzahut11
porsche00
prada11
ralphlauren00
samsung33
santander11
sap227
shell47
siemens43
smirnoff00
sony68
sprite11
starbucks11
thomsonreuters00
tiffanyco00
toyota22
ups210
visa310
volkswagen00
xerox13
zara13

The numbers will of course grow rapidly as ICANN publishes more collisions lists.

If there’s sufficient interest from DI PRO subscribers in this breakdown being kept up to date on an ongoing basis, I’ll bolt it on to to the existing collisions database.

XYZ says auctions “comfortably within the rules”

Kevin Murphy, November 10, 2013, Domain Registries

New gTLD registry XYZ.com has responded to criticisms of its plan to auction .xyz and .college names with NameJet before they even have signed contracts with ICANN.

CEO Daniel Negari told DI that the plan to auction 40 names between now and the end of February, is “comfortably within the rules”.

The company seems to be operating at the edge of what is permissible under the new gTLD program’s rights protection mechanisms, which state that no domains may be allocated prior to Sunrise.

But Negari said in an email interview that nothing will be “allocated” before its Sunrise periods are done:

the buyers at auction are not buying the domain names as in a normal auction. They are buying an option to force us to allocate them the domain after the Sunrise Period for the auction price assuming various contingencies are met — such as us being able to allocate the name in the future, the name being available after sunrise, the name not being blocked-out because of name collisions and so on.

He went on to say that the 40 names being put to auction are being drawn from the 100 names the recently redrafted Registry Agreement says registries are allowed to allocate to themselves “necessary for the operation or the promotion of the TLD”.

There’s also the potential problem that neither TLD has yet received its list of name collisions, which are likely to contain thousands of strings that the registry must block at launch.

As we’ve seen with the gTLDs that already have their lists, many desirable second-level strings are likely to be blocked, which could clash with names XYZ is planning to auction.

But XYZ seems to have access to the Day In The Life Of The Internet data from which these lists are compiled, and Negari said that the names it is auctioning off do not appear.

“We think these auctions are a great way to both promote our TLD as anticipated by ICANN in the RA and to bring increased innovation to the space in line with ICANN’s stated goals for the new gTLD program,” Negari said.