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Tonkin says better new gTLD trademark protections could come in the first round

Kevin Murphy, September 24, 2012, Domain Policy

Groups pushing for stronger new gTLD trademark protection mechanisms could get some of their wishes if they present a unified, coherent position to ICANN.

That’s according to Melbourne IT chief strategy officer and ICANN vice chairman Bruce Tonkin, speaking to DI today about the company’s trademarks summit in Washington DC last week.

Tonkin said that the event identified five rough areas of consensus about changes to rights protection mechanisms, at least two of which could be made before new gTLDs start to go live (which he expects to happen in the fourth quarter of 2013).

The Business Constituency, IP Constituency and so-called “brand summit” are now talking about their areas of common ground and are expected to continue the conversation at the ICANN meeting in Toronto next month.

One area of apparent agreement is an extension to the Trademark Claims service – which alerts trademark owners when somebody registers a domain matching their mark – beyond the 60 days mandated by the Applicant Guidebook.

Trademark interests want the service made permanent, because cybersquatters don’t suddenly stop registering infringing domain names 60 days after a TLD hits general availability.

ICANN has resisted this change, as CEO Fadi Chehade explained last week, largely because several companies already offer commercial trademark watch services.

Many registries and registrars are also against such a move due to the potential cost considerations.

However, Tonkin does not appear to be convinced by either argument.

“Even though a single gTLD might be for 60 days, gTLDs will launch at a range of different times over a number of years. Registries and registrars will have to support that process over a couple of years,” he said. “The cost to industry to extend it over 60 days isn’t that high.”

While supporting the extension may seem like an own goal for Melbourne IT – one of the companies already selling brand monitoring services – Tonkin is not too concerned about losing business.

The value of such services is in the added intelligence, such as monitoring the usage of infringing domains and recommending recovery strategies, he said, not just supplying lists of domains.

“Just that raw data isn’t especially beneficial,” he said.

There’s also no service on the market today that, like Trademark Claims, alerts registrants about third-party trademark rights at the point of registration, Tonkin noted.

Extending Trademark Claims could be seen as a matter of implementation, rather than policy, and may be one of the easiest goals for the trademark community to achieve.

“With enough community support, GNSO advice or ALAC advice could be presented to the board, which could make changes to the Applicant Guidebook,” Tonkin said.

“But I think the board would be reluctant to do that unless it saw very clear support from the community,” he added.

A faster, cheaper Uniform Rapid Suspension system is something that could also be made to happen via “implementation” tweaks, he indicated.

Trademark owners are looking for URS to be priced in the $300-$500 range, which WIPO and the National Arbitration Forum don’t think is feasible the way it is currently structured.

ICANN plans to issue a Request For Proposals soon, according to chief of strategy Kurt Pritz, in order to see if any other provider can do it more cheaply, however.

Another request from trademark holders, to do registrant identity checking — such as email authentication — could be handled via the ongoing Registrar Accreditation Agreement talks, Tonkin suggest.

But other emerging consensus areas would be more suited to a full GNSO Policy Development Process, he said.

The IP community wants the Trademark Clearinghouse to include not only exact matches of their trademarks, but also mark+keyword records (such as googlesearch.tld or paypalpayments.tld).

While there’s agreement in principle among these constituencies, there are still some differences in the details, however.

Some say that the keywords should be limited to words included in the trademark registration, while others believe that mark+keywords won in UDRP cases should be included.

If the former approach is used, domains such as paypal-support.tld, to borrow the example repeatedly used at last week’s summit, would probably not be protected.

Tonkin said that last week’s summit seemed to produce agreement that an algorithmic approach would be too complex, and would generate far to many false positives, to be effective.

A PDP would also be likely be required to find agreement on a mandatory “blocking” system, along the lines of what ICM Registry created for its Sunrise B, Tonkin said.

The problem with PDPs is that they take a long time, and it’s very unlikely that they could produce results in time for the first new gTLD launches.

Tonkin, however, suggested that moving forward with a PDP would create a strong incentive for new gTLD registries to create and adhere to voluntary best practices.

He pointed out that many applicants plan to bring in stronger rights protection mechanisms than ICANN requires already.

While Tonkin is vice chairman of ICANN’s board, he’s not involved in any new gTLD decisions or discussions due to his conflict of interest as a senior executive at a major registrar.

ICANN plans meeting on URS amid calls for RFP

Kevin Murphy, September 19, 2012, Domain Policy

ICANN wants to try to put the unresolved issues surrounding the Uniform Rapid Suspension system to bed and is planning a meeting in a couple of weeks time to solicit community input.

According to an email from chief of strategy Kurt Pritz to the GNSO Council and At-Large Advisory Committee, ICANN plans to hold a webinar, with a possible face-to-face option, in about two weeks.

The aim is to sort out the problems with URS, which was originally conceived as a faster, cheaper version of UDRP for clear-cut cases of cybersquatting that don’t require much thought to decide.

It’s currently neither fast enough for the trademark lobby’s liking, nor as cheap as ICANN had hoped.

ICANN had targeted a $300 to $500 fee to file URS complaints, but following conversations with the World Intellectual Property Organization and National Arbitration Forum it realized that the true cost was likely to be as much as triple that amount, more in line with UDRP fees.

The higher than expected costs are largely due to the additional registrant protections that were negotiated into the URS procedure over the last few years, which complicate matters.

At a session at the ICANN meeting in Prague this June, community members tried to figure out ways to make URS cheaper without compromising these protections.

Pritz’s email suggested that some of these ideas might work, but others might run counter to established policy.

Many parties on both side of the fence are coming to the realization that unless URS is in place, new gTLD registries that are contractually obliged to abide by it may not be able to launch.

Yesterday, at Melbourne IT’s summit on trademark protection in Washington DC, there were some calls for ICANN to just issue a request for proposals and see which provider offers the best price.

There are plenty of UDRP lawyers/panelists who believe URS cases can easily be handled in 15 minutes at $200, assuming most of the process is automated and the complaints are kept to a word limit.

Big brands ask US for published list of known cybersquatters, other stuff

Kevin Murphy, September 6, 2012, Domain Policy

A public, published list of repeat cybersquatters was among the demands that the trademark lobby took to a meeting with the US government in Washington DC yesterday.

The summit, hosted by the Department of Commerce, was the latest stage in the US government’s response to the campaign for more new gTLD rights protection mechanisms kicked off by the Association of National Advertisers a little over a year ago.

About 30 big brand owners, along with several trade associations and campaign groups, took part.

The Internet Commerce Association somehow managed to blag an invitation too, and was the only representative of domain registrants, according to a blog post by ICA counsel Phil Corwin.

The companies, which included tech companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, AOL, Yahoo and eBay and offline brand owners such as Nike, Coca-Cola, Time Warner and News Corp, met in early June to formulate a set of recommendations to take to Commerce.

These recommendations are outlined in an August 29 letter (pdf), a copy of which DI has obtained.

Notably, the companies asked for a published list of “bad actors” who have repeatedly lost Uniform Rapid Suspension cases. The letter states:

Recidivist bad actors should be tracked via a list of common Respondents and that list should be published and publicly available.

However, we understand that this request is a low-priority item, discussed only briefly yesterday, and that Commerce representatives did not immediately embrace it.

The bulk of the discussions related to tweaks trademark owners want to see in the Trademark Claims service — which alerts them and the registrant when somebody tries to register a potentially infringing domain name — and the URS.

The brand owners want Trademark Claims, which new gTLD registries are only obliged to offer for the first 60 days of general availability, extended for a longer period, possibly up to three years.

On the face of it, this is among the most reasonable longstanding demands from the IP crowd, but ICANN has resisted it to date as it’s worried about creating a monopoly in the pre-existing market for trademark monitoring services.

If the Trademark Clearinghouse is alerting you every time somebody registers a domain name with your brand in it, why pay MarkMonitor or Melbourne IT for the same service?

The letter also says that Trademark Claims should cover brand+keyword registrations, and domains containing registered trademarks, rather than just exact matches.

The worrisome aspect of this request is that there’s quite a high risk of false positives due to run-on words, very short trademarks, acronyms and dictionary words.

Non-commercial ICANN stakeholders dislike this due to the possibility of a chilling effect on free speech, while registries and registrars don’t like anything that puts unnecessary obstacles in the registration path.

With URS, the trademark owners want a full loser-pays system, though they acknowledge that it could raise the filing fee, which is something they don’t want.

To keep costs down, they want a lower filing fee for cases where the registrant does not respond and a URS panelist is not appointed, which seems like a reasonable idea.

The idea of ICANN (and, ultimately, registrants) subsidizing URS fees has also been put forward.

Finally, the trademark owners want registries to implement defensive blocking systems with one-time fees, modeled on the Sunrise B process that ICM Registry used with the launch of .xxx.

Some of the ideas — such as lower filing fees for uncontested URS cases — seem fairly reasonable and I can see them gaining traction.

Others, such as the brand+keyword protections, seem harder to implement and less likely to pass through ICANN unchallenged.

So what happens next? According to ICA’s Corwin:

For their part, the hosts of the meeting [Commerce] listened politely but did not to endorse any of the suggestions, although they did commit to follow-up interagency discussions. It was pointed out that some of the proposals have been raised before and went nowhere within ICANN, and questions were raised about what process would be utilized to place them before the broader ICANN community and its Board. It was also indicated that the U.S. would be reluctant to undertake any unilateral communications on these matters to ICANN’s Board.

Given this reluctance, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of these ideas bubbling up through the Governmental Advisory Committee instead, as ideas from the US trademark lobby are wont to do.

As with every ICANN meeting, expect to see further discussions in Toronto next month.

What’s wrong with Melbourne IT’s new anti-cybersquatting plan?

Kevin Murphy, August 16, 2012, Domain Policy

Genuine question.

Melbourne IT, the Aussie registrar with the increasingly vocal brand-protection focus, has come up with a new scheme for protecting super-famous brands after new gTLDs start to launch.

It draws on elements of the abandoned Globally Protected Marks List, ICM Registry’s Sunrise B policy, .CO Internet’s launch program, and various recent demands from the intellectual property community.

It’s called the paper Minimizing HARM (pdf), where HARM stands for High At-Risk Marks.

The title may set off grammatical alarm bells, but the rest reads like the least-unreasonable proposition for protecting big brands from cybersquatters that I’ve come across in a long time.

What I like about it is that it’s actually contemplating ways to prevent gaming from the outset, which is something the IP lobby hardly ever seems to do when it demands stronger rights protection mechanisms.

The idea calls for the forthcoming Trademark Clearinghouse to flag a narrow subset of the trademarks in its database as High At-Risk Marks that deserve special treatment.

Melbourne IT has organizations such as PayPal and the Red Cross in mind, but getting on the list would not be easy, even for famous brands.

First, companies would have to prove they’ve had trademark protection for the brand in three of ICANN’s five geographic regions for at least five years — already quite a high bar.

Implemented today, that provision could well rule out brands such as Twitter, which is an obvious high-risk cybersquatting target but might be too young to meet the criteria.

Dictionary words found in any of UN’s six official languages would also be banned, regardless of how famous the brand is. As the paper notes, that would be bad news for Apple and Gap.

Companies would also have to show that their marks are particularly at risk from phishing and cybersquatting.

Five successful UDRP complaints or suspensions of infringing domains by a “top ten registrar” would be enough to demonstrate this risk.

But that’s not all. The paper adds:

In addition to meeting the minimum criteria above, the High At-Risk Mark will need to obtain a minimum total points score of 100, where one point is awarded for each legal protection in a jurisdiction, and one point is awarded for each successful UDRP, court action, or domain registrar suspension undertaken in relation to the mark.

That appears to be setting the bar for inclusion high enough that an OlympicTM pole-vaulter would have difficulty.

Once a brand made it onto the HARM list, it would receive special protections not available to other brands.

It would qualify for a “Once-off Registration Fee”, pretty much the same as ICM’s .xxx Sunrise B, where you pay once to block your exact-match domain and don’t get pinged for renewal fees every year.

Any third parties attempting to register an available exact-match would also have to have two forms of contact information verified by the gTLD registry before their names resolved.

The Trademark Claims service – which alerts mark owners when somebody registers one of their brands – would run forever for HARM-listed trademarks, rather than just for the first 60 days after a gTLD goes into general availability.

The always controversial Uniform Rapid Suspension service would also get tweaked for HARM trademarks.

Unless the alleged cybersquatter paid the equivalent of a URS filing fee (to be refunded if they prevail) their domains would get suspended 48 hours after the complaint was filed.

I’m quite fond of some of the ideas in this paper.

If ICANN is to ever adopt a specially protected marks list, which it has so far resisted, the idea of using favorable UDRP decisions as a benchmark for inclusion – which I believe Marque also suggested to ICANN back in February – is attractive to me.

Sure, there are plenty of dumb UDRP decisions, but the vast majority are sensible. Requiring a sufficiently high number of UDRP wins – perhaps with an extra requirement for different panelists in each case – seems like a neat way of weeding out trademark gamers.

The major problem with Melbourne IT’s paper appears to be that the system it proposes is just so complicated, and would protect so few companies, that I’m not sure it would be very easy to find consensus around it in the ICANN community.

I can imagine some registries and registrars might not be too enthusiastic when they figure out that some of the proposals could add cost and friction to the sales process.

Some IP owners might also sniff at the some of the ideas, just as soon as they realize their own trademarks wouldn’t meet the high criteria for inclusion on the HARM list.

Is Melbourne IT’s proposal just too damn sensible to pass through ICANN? Or is it riddled with obvious holes that I’ve somehow manged to miss?

Discuss.

WIPO supported Draconian cybersquatting reform

Kevin Murphy, July 9, 2012, Domain Policy

Domain name owners who do not respond to cybersquatting complaints could automatically have their domains suspended, if the World Intellectual Property Organization gets its way.

That’s according to the latest ICANN documents to be released under its Documentary Information Disclosure Policy, following a request from the Internet Commerce Association.

The documents relate to the still controversial Uniform Rapid Suspension policy, a supplement to the existing UDRP for dealing with “clear cut” cases of cybersquatting.

The URS will be binding on all new gTLDs, but ICANN recently admitted that it’s been unable to find an organization willing to administer URS cases for the planned $300 to $500 filing fee.

Rather than implement URS with a $1,000 to $1,500 fee instead, ICANN plans to host two community summits to try to figure out ways to rearchitect the scheme to make it cheaper.

These changes could well mean fewer safeguards for domain registrants.

According to an email from WIPO released in response to ICA’s DIDP request, WIPO declined to host these summits unless ICANN agreed, in advance, to Draconian rules on default.

WIPO’s Erik Wilbers wrote (pdf):

it would seem unlikely that these stakeholders would now feel able to commit to the rather fundamental changes we believe to be in everyone’s interest – notably a shift to the proposed respondent-default basis without panel, subject to appropriate safeguards. We would consider an express prior commitment to such a shift, including the requisite Board support, as a pre-condition to a fruitful meeting on the URS.

In other words, WIPO thinks domain names should be suspended without expert review if the domain owner does not respond to a trademark owner’s URS complaint.

ICA counsel Phil Corwin is naturally not happy about this, writing in a blog post this weekend:

WIPO would only consent to hosting URS Summits if their result was largely pre-ordained – in which event, we ask, why bother holding the Summits at all? … This imperious demand should be dismissed out of hand by members of ICANN’s Board should it ever reach them.

That the structure of URS is still open for debate at this late stage of the game is an embarrassment, particularly given the fact that it’s been well-understood for some time that URS was unrealistically priced.

The new DIDP documents reveal that even the idea of summits to resolve the apparently intractable problems were a Band-Aid proposed almost accidentally by ICANN staff.

ICANN, it seems, is engaged in policy fire-fighting as usual.

The current hope is for URS to be finalized and a provider be in place by June 2013. It’s a plausible timetable, but I’m less convinced that a system can be created that is fair, useful and cheap.