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GNSO still breathing as ICANN retracts “flawed” Trademark+50 thinking

Kevin Murphy, July 2, 2013, Domain Policy

The Generic Names Supporting Organization isn’t dead after all.

ICANN’s Board Governance Committee has retracted a document related to new gTLD trademark protections that some on the GNSO Council believed spelled the end of the multistakeholder model as we know it.

The BGC, in rejecting a formal Reconsideration Request related to the “Trademark+50” mechanism, had used a rationale that some said was overly confrontational, legalistic and gave ICANN staff the ability to ignore community input more or less at will.

We reported on the issue in considerable detail here.

The committee on Friday retracted the original rationale, replacing it with one (pdf) that, while still containing some of the flawed reasoning DI noted last month, seems to have appeased the GNSO Council.

Neustar policy VP Jeff Neuman, who raised the original concerns, told the Council: “I believe the rationale is much more consistent with, and recognizes, the value of the multi-stakeholder model.”

The BGC did not change its ultimate decision — the Reconsideration Request has still been rejected and Trademark+50 is still being implemented in the new gTLD program.

The True Historie of Trademark+50 and the Deathe of the GNSO (Parte the Thirde)

Kevin Murphy, May 28, 2013, Domain Policy

ICANN’s decision to press ahead with the “Trademark+50” trademark protection mechanism over the objections of much of the community may not be the end of the controversy.

Some in the Generic Names Supporting Organization are even complaining that ICANN’s rejection of a recent challenge to the proposal may “fundamentally alter the multi-stakeholder model”.

Trademark+50 is the recently devised adjunct to the suite of rights protection mechanisms created specially for the new gTLD program.

It will enable trademark owners to add up to 50 strings to each record they have in the Trademark Clearinghouse, where those strings have been previously ruled abusive under UDRP.

Once in the TMCH, they will generate Trademark Claims notices for both the trademark owner and the would-be registrant of the matching domain name during the first 60 days of general availability in each new gTLD.

Guinness, for example, will be able to add “guinness-sucks” to its TMCH record for “Guinness” because it has previously won guinness-sucks.com in a UDRP decision.

If somebody then tries to register guinness-sucks.beer, they’ll get a warning that they may be about to infringe Guinness’ trademark rights. If they go ahead and register anyway, Guinness will also get an alert.

Trademark+50 was created jointly by ICANN’s Business Constituency and Intellectual Property Constituency late last year as one of a raft of measures designed to strengthen rights protection in new gTLDs.

They then managed to persuade CEO Fadi Chehade, who was at the time still pretty new and didn’t fully appreciate the history of conflict over these issues, to convene a series of invitation-only meetings in Brussels and Los Angeles to try to get other community members to agree to the proposals.

These meetings came up with the “strawman solution”, a list of proposed changes to the program’s rights protection mechanisms.

Until two weeks ago, when DI managed to get ICANN to publish a transcript and audio recording of the LA meetings, what was said during these meetings was shrouded in a certain degree of secrecy.

I don’t know why. Having listened to the 20-hour recording, I can tell you there was very little said that you wouldn’t hear during a regular on-the-record public ICANN meeting.

Everyone appeared to act in good faith, bringing new ideas and suggestions to the table in an attempt to find a solution that was acceptable to all.

The strongest resistance to the strawman came, in my view, from the very small number (only one remained by the end) of non-commercial interests who had been invited, and from the registrars.

The non-coms were worried about the “chilling effect” of expanding trademark rights, while registrars were worried that they would end up carrying the cost of supporting confused or frightened registrants.

What did emerge during the LA meeting was quite a heated discussion about whether the IPC/BC proposals should be considered merely “implementation” details or the creation of new “policy”.

That debate spilled over into 2013.

Under the very strictest definition of “policy”, it could be argued that pretty much every aspect of every new rights protection mechanism in the Applicant Guidebook is “implementation”.

The only hard policy the GNSO came up with on trademarks in new gTLDs was back in 2008. It reads:

Strings must not infringe the existing legal rights of others that are recognized or enforceable under generally accepted and internationally recognized principles of law.

Pretty much everything that has come since has been cobbled together from community discussions, ad hoc working groups, ICANN staff “synthesis” of public comments, and board action.

But many in the ICANN community — mainly registries, registrars and non-commercial interests — say that anything that appears to create new rights and/or imposes significant new burdens on the industry should be considered “policy”.

During the LA meetings, there was broad agreement that stuff like extending Trademark Claims from 60 to 90 days and instituting a mandatory 30-day notice period before each Sunrise period was “implementation”.

Those changes won’t really incur any major new costs for the industry; they merely tweak systems that already have broad, if sometimes grudging, community support.

But the attendees were split (IPC/BC on the one side, most everyone else on the other) about whether Trademark+50, among other items, was new policy or just an implementation detail.

If something is “policy” there are community processes to deal with it. If it’s implementation it can be turned over to ICANN staff and forgotten.

Because the registries and registrars have an effective veto on GNSO policy-making and tend to vote as a bloc, many others view a “policy” label as a death sentence for something they want done.

A month after the strawman meetings, in early December, ICANN staff produced a briefing paper on the strawman solution (pdf) for public comment. Describing what we’re now calling Trademark+50, the paper stated quite unambiguously (it seemed at the time):

The inclusion of strings previously found to be abusively registered in the Clearinghouse for purposes of Trademark Claims can be considered a policy matter.

Chehade had previously — before the strawman meetings — strongly suggested in a letter to members of the US Congress that Trademark+50 was not doable:

It is important to note that the Trademark Clearinghouse is intended be a repository for existing legal rights, and not an adjudicator of such rights or creator of new rights. Extending the protections offered through the Trademark Clearinghouse to any form of name (such as the mark + generic term suggested in your letter) would potentially expand rights beyond those granted under trademark law and put the Clearinghouse in the role of making determinations as to the scope of particular rights.

Personally, I doubt then-new Chehade wrote the letter (at least, not without help). It mirrors Beckstrom-era arguments and language and contrasts with a lot of what he’s said since.

But it’s a pretty clear statement from ICANN’s CEO that the expansion of Trademark Claims to Trademark+50 night expand trademark rights and, implicitly, is not some throwaway implementation detail.

Nevertheless, a day after the staff briefing paper Chehade wrote to GNSO Council chair Jonathan Robinson in early December to ask for “policy guidance” on the proposal.

Again, there was a strong suggestion that ICANN was viewing Trademark+50 as a policy issue that would probably require GNSO input.

Robinson replied at the end of February, after some very difficult GNSO Council discussions, saying “the majority of the council feels that is proposal is best addressed as a policy concern”.

The IPC disagreed with this majority view, no doubt afraid that a “policy” tag would lead to Trademark+50 being gutted by the other GNSO constituencies over the space of months or years.

But despite ICANN staff, most of the GNSO Council and apparently Chehade himself concluding that Trademark+50 was policy, staff did a U-turn in March and decided to go ahead with Trademark+50 after all.

An unsigned March 20 staff report states:

Having reviewed and balanced all feedback, this proposal appears to be a reasonable add-on to an existing service, rather than a proposed new service.

It is difficult to justify omission of a readily available mechanism which would strengthen the trademark protection available through the Clearinghouse. Given that the proposal relies on determinations that have already been made independently through established processes, and that the scope of protection is bounded by this, concerns about undue expansion of rights do not seem necessary.

This caught the GNSO off-guard; Trademark+50 had looked like it was going down the policy track and all of a sudden it was a pressing reality of implementation.

Outraged, the Non-Commercial Stakeholders Group, which had been the strongest (if smallest through no fault of their own) voice against the proposal during the strawman meetings filed a formal Reconsideration Request (pdf) with ICANN.

Reconsideration Requests are one of the oversight mechanisms built into ICANN’s bylaws. They’re adjudicated by ICANN’s own Board Governance Committee and never succeed.

In its request, the NCSG told a pretty similar history to the one I’ve just finished relating and asked the BGC to overturn the staff decision to treat Trademark+50 as implementation.

The NCSG notes, rightly, that just because a domain has been lost at UDRP the string itself is not necessarily inherently abusive. To win a UDRP a complainant must also demonstrate the registrant’s bad faith and lack of rights to the string at issue.

To return to the earlier example, when notorious cybersquatter John Zuccarini — an unambiguously bad guy — registered guinness-sucks.com back in 2000 he told Guinness he’d done it just to piss them off.

That doesn’t mean guinness-sucks.beer is inherently bad, however. In many jurisdictions I would be well within my rights to register the domain to host a site criticizing the filthy brown muck.

But if I try to register the name, I’m going to get a Trademark Claims notice asking me to verify that I’m not going to infringe Guinness’ legal rights and advising me to consult a lawyer.

Chilling effect? Maybe. My own view is that many people will just click through the notice as easily as they click through the Ts&Cs on any other web site or piece of software.

Either way, I won’t be able to claim in court that I’d never heard of GuinnessTM, should the company ever decide to sue me.

Anyway, the NCSG’s Reconsideration Request failed. On May 16 the BGC issued a 15-page determination (pdf) denying it.

It’s this document that’s causing consternation and death-of-the-GNSO mutterings right now.

Last week, Neustar’s lead ICANN wonk Jeff Neuman asked for the Reconsideration Request to be put on the agenda of the GNSO Council’s June 13 meeting. He wants BGC representatives to join the call too. He wrote:

This decision was clearly written by legal counsel (and probably from outside legal counsel). It was written as a legal brief in litigation would be written, and if upheld, can undermine the entire bottom-up multi-stakeholder model. If ICANN wanted to justify their decision to protect their proclamation for the 50 variations, they could have done it in a number of ways that would have been more palatable. Instead, they used this Reconsideration Process as a way to fundamentally alter the multi-stakeholder model. It not only demonstrates how meaningless the Reconsideration process is as an accountability measure, but also sends a signal of things to come if we do not step in.

He has support from other councilors.

I suspect the registries that Neuman represents on the Council are not so much concerned with Trademark+50 itself, more with the way ICANN has forced the issue through over their objections.

The registries, remember, are already nervous as hell about the possibility of ICANN taking unilateral action to amend their contracts in future, and bad decision-making practices now may set bad precedents.

But Neuman has a point about the legalistic way in which the Reconsideration Request was handled. I spotted a fair few examples in the decision of what can only be described as, frankly, lawyer bullshit.

For example, the NCSG used Chehade’s letter to Congress as an example of why Trademark+50 should be and was being considered “policy”, but the BGC deliberately misses the point in its response, stating:

The NCSG fails to explain, however, is how ICANN policy can be created through a proclamation in a letter to Congress without following ICANN policy development procedures. To be clear, ICANN cannot create policy in this fashion.

Only a lawyer could come up with this kind of pedantic misinterpretation.

The NCSG wasn’t arguing that Chehade’s letter to Congress created a new policy, it was arguing that he was explaining an existing policy. It was attempting to say “Hey, even Fadi thought this was policy.”

Strike two: the NCSG had also pointed to the aforementioned staff determination, since reversed, that Trademark+50 was a policy matter, but the BCG’s response was, again, legalistic.

It noted that staff only said Trademark+50 “can” be considered a policy matter (rather than “is”, one assumes), again ignoring the full context of the document.

In context, both the Chehade letter and the March staff document make specific reference to the fact that the Implementation Recommendation Team had decided back in 2009 that only strings that exactly match trademarks should be protected. But the BGC does not mention the IRT once in its decision.

Strike three: the BGC response discounted Chehade’s request for GNSO “policy guidance” as an “inartful phrase”. He wasn’t really saying it was a policy matter, apparently. No.

Taken as a whole, the BGC rejection of the Reconsideration Request comes across like it was written by somebody trying to justify a fait accompli, trying to make the rationale fit the decision.

In my view, Trademark+50 is quite a sensible compromise proposal with little serious downside.

I think it will help trademark owners lower their enforcement costs and the impact on registrars, registries and registrants’ rights is likely to be minimal.

But the way it’s being levered through ICANN — unnecessarily secretive discussions followed by badly explained U-turns — looks dishonest.

It doesn’t come across like ICANN is playing fair, no matter how noble its intentions.

Will the Trademark Clearinghouse kill off premium domains?

Kevin Murphy, April 18, 2013, Domain Policy

Rules proposed for the new Trademark Clearinghouse threaten to cut off some of new gTLD registries major sources of early revenue, according to registry providers.

Premium domain sales and founders programs are among the now industry-standard practices that would be essentially banned under the current draft of the TMCH rules, they say.

The potential problems emerged in a draft TMCH Requirements document circulated to registries 10 days ago and vigorously discussed during a session at the ICANN meeting in Beijing last week.

The document lists all of the things that new gTLD registries must and must not, and may and may not, do during the mandatory Sunrise and Trademark Claims rights protection launch periods.

One of the bits that has left registries confused is this:

2.2.4 Registry Operator MUST NOT allow a domain name to be reserved or registered to a registrant who is not a Sunrise-Eligible Rights Holder prior to the conclusion of the Sunrise Period.

What this means is that trademark owners get first dibs on pretty much every possible string in every gTLD.

“Trademark owners trump everything,” Neustar business affairs veep Jeff Neuman said during the Beijing meeting. “Trademark owners trump every possible use of every possible name.”

It would mean, for example, that if a new gTLD wanted to allocate some names to high-profile anchor tenants during a “founders program”, it would not be able to do so until after the Sunrise was over.

Let’s say the successful applicant for .shop wants to reserve the names of hundreds of shop types (book.shop, food.shop, etc) as premium names, to allocate during its founders program or auction later.

Because the .shop Sunrise would have to happen first, the companies that the own rights to, for example, “wallpaper” or “butcher” (both real US trademarks) would have first rights to wallpaper.shop and butcher.shop, even if they only planned to defensively park the domains.

Because there’s likely to be some degree of gaming (there’s a proof-of-use requirement, but the passing threshold is pretty low), registries’ premium lists could be decimated during Sunrise periods.

If ICANN keeps its TMCH Requirements as they are currently written, new gTLD registries stand to lose a lot of early revenue, not to mention control over launch marketing initiatives.

However, if ICANN were to remove this rule, it might give unscrupulous registries the ability to circumvent the mandatory Sunrise period entirely by placing millions of strings on their premium lists.

“Registries should have discretion to schedule their start-up phases according to their business plans so long as rights protection processes are honored, so that’s the balancing we’ve tried to do,” ICANN operations & policy research director Karen Lenz said during Beijing.

“It’s trying to allow registries to create requirements that suit their purposes, without being able to hollow out the rights protection intention,” she said.

The requirements document is still just a draft, and discussions are ongoing, she added.

“It’s certainly not our intention to restrict business models,” Lenz said.

Registries will get some flexibility to restrict Sunrise to certain registrants. For example, they’ll be able to disqualify those without an affiliation to the industry to which the gTLD is targeted.

What they won’t be able to do is create arbitrary rules unrelated to the purpose of the TLD, or apply one set of rules during Sunrise and another during the first 90 days of general availability.

The standard Registry Agreement that ICANN expects all new gTLDs to sign up to does enable registries to reserve or block as many names as they want, but only if those names are not registered or used.

It seemed to be designed to do things like blocing ‘sensitive’ strings, rather like when ICM Registry reserved thousands of names of celebrities and cultural terms in .xxx.

The Requirements document, on the other hand, seems to allow these names being released at a later date. If they were released, the document states, they’d have to be subject to Trademark Claims notices, but not Sunrise rules.

While that may be a workaround to the premium domains problem, it doesn’t appear to help registries that want to get founders programs done before general availability.

It seems that there are still many outstanding issues surrounding the Trademark Clearinghouse — many more than discussed in this post — that will need to be settled before new gTLDs are going to feel comfortable launching.

Loophole gives trademark owners unlimited Clearinghouse records

Kevin Murphy, March 27, 2013, Domain Policy

Trademark owners will be able to add potentially thousands of strings to the Trademark Clearinghouse due to a recently introduced loophole, it emerged last night.

ICANN recently said that it will allow mark holders to add up to 50 strings related to their trademarks to their TMCH records, if the strings have been abused in the past.

It was one of the controversial “strawman” proposals that ICANN decided to adopt earlier this month.

Companies would be able to get protection for “mark+keyword” strings, for example, if a UDRP decision or court ruling had previously found that the strings had been cybersquatted.

The 50-string cap appeared to have been picked rather arbitrarily, but it turns out it’s more-or-less irrelevant anyway.

ICANN confirmed on its webinar for new gTLD applicants last night that the limit is 50 additional strings per entry in the Clearinghouse, not 50 strings per trademarked string.

What this means is that a company that has registered its trademark in multiple jurisdictions will be able to get 50 extra strings for each of those marks it enters into the Clearinghouse.

If Apple had a registered mark for “Apple” in the US and a registered mark for “Apple” in Bolivia, it would be able to submit both to the Clearinghouse and get an additional 100 “apple+keyword” records.

If it had the mark registered in 100 countries, it could put up to 5,000 more strings in the Clearinghouse.

Each string could be used to generate Trademark Claims notices, but not to secure registrations during Sunrise periods.

The apparent loophole and its implications were raised by Reg Levy of Minds + Machines during last night’s ICANN call.

In practice, the number of additional strings mark holders would qualify for would be capped by the number of trademark jurisdictions in the world and/or the number of UDRP decisions they’d won.

Few companies have secured more than a few hundred domains at UDRP to date, meaning it won’t be too difficult for trademark owners to get Trademark Claims protection for basically any previously cybersquatted string.

ICANN to pay $2 million to keep Trademark Clearinghouse “free” for registrars

Kevin Murphy, March 27, 2013, Domain Registrars

ICANN is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to helping new gTLDs be successful, committing $2 million to keep Trademark Clearinghouse access “free” for registrars.

While TMCH pricing for trademark owners is now well-publicized, ICANN COO Akram Attalah last night revealed some of the fees for new gTLD registries and registrars.

Registries will have to pay a one-time fee of $5,000 per TLD to access the TMCH, he said.

That was reduced from $10,000 during talks with TMCH back-end provider IBM after ICANN promised to handle billing and administration, he said.

There’s also going to be a $0.30 fee for each domain that matches a TMCH record registered during Sunrise and Trademark Claims periods, he added. The specifics on this fee were a little fuzzy.

But registrars won’t have to pay a penny, it seems. Attalah said that ICANN will pay IBM $2 million to make sure the Clearinghouse is accessible and free for registrars.

“ICANN will pay $400,000 per year for five years to keep the TMCH up and running and that provides free access to all registrars,” he said on last night’s new gTLDs update webinar.

It won’t be completely free for registrars, of course.

Registrars will have to do some implementation work to support the new Trademark Claims and Sunrise specs, but the absence of fees gives them one less excuse to avoid the two rights protection periods.