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Virgin territory as GoDaddy pushes $30 million porn domain renewals

Kevin Murphy, November 16, 2021, Domain Registries

Brand owners big and small are in for a potential surprise December 1, as their 10-year-old .xxx domain blocks expire and registrars bill their customers to convert them into a new annually-renewing GoDaddy service.

GoDaddy confirmed to DI today that it will “auto-convert” the old Sunrise B blocks, first sold by ICM Registry in 2011, to its new AdultBlock service, which provides essentially the same functionality but across four TLDs rather than one.

Tony Kirsch, head of professional services at GoDaddy Registry, said:

Registrars have been contacting all the Sunrise B owners and advising them that as of December 1 they will be grandfathered and automatically converted into an AdultBlock service, but they have a choice to expire that or stop that happening prior to December 1.

And if it is that they don’t do that before December 1, we’ll still give them a grace period of at least 45 days. If that happens they can then, as you’d normally do, just turn around to the registrar and say “We don’t want that” and we will of course refund the money.

This means that GoDaddy, which acquired .xxx and ICM from MMX earlier this year, is billing its .xxx registrar partners to convert and renew what could be as many as 81,000 Sunrise B blocks.

While the registry fee for AdultBlock has not been published, retail registrars I checked have priced the service at $370 to $400 per year, which we can probably assume is low-end pricing. Most .xxx domains are sold via the specialist brand-protection registrars like CSC and Markmonitor, which sometimes have more complex pricing.

So that’s something in the ballpark of $30 million worth of renewal invoices being sent out in the coming weeks, for something in many cases brand owners may have institutionally forgot about.

Kirsch said that AdultBlock was introduced by MMX about 18 months ago and that registrars have been preparing their customers for the Sunrise B expiration for some time.

Sunrise B was a program, unprecedented in the industry at the time, whereby trademark owners could pay a one-off fee — ICM charged its registrars about $160 wholesale — to have their brands removed from the available pool.

The domains exist in the .xxx zone file and resolve to a black page bearing the words “This domain has been reserved from registration”, but they’re not registered and usable like normal defensive or sunrise registrations would be.

Companies got to avoid not only the potential embarrassment of being porn-squatted, but also the hassle of having to explain to a tabloid reporter why they “owned” the .xxx domain in question.

The term of the Sunrise B block was 10 years. ICM told me at the time that this was because the company’s initial registry contract with ICANN only lasted for 10 years, so it was legally unable to sell longer-term blocks, but I’ve never been sure how much I buy that explanation.

Regardless, that 10 year period comes to an end in two weeks.

Because Sunrise B was unprecedented, this first renewal phase is also unprecedented. We’re in virgin territory (pun, of course, very much intended) here.

Will we see the industry’s first public “block junk drop”?

There are a number of reasons to believe trademark owners, assuming they don’t just blindly pay their registrar’s invoices, would choose to allow their blocks to expire or to ask for a refund after the fact.

First, the price has gone up — a lot.

While ICM charged $160 for a 10-year Sunrise B block (maybe marked up by registrars to a few hundred bucks) brand owners can expect to pay something like $3,000 retail for a single string blocked for 10 years.

But buyers do get a bit more bang for their buck. Unlike Sunrise B, AdultBlock also blocks the trademark in three additional GoDaddy-owned TLDs — .porn, .sex and .adult — as standard.

Kirsch said he expects buyers to see a 40% to 50% saving compared to the cost of defensively registering each domain individually.

Second, the appetite for defensive registrations has waned over the past 10 years, with trademark owners employing more nuanced approaches to brand protection, largely due to the flood of new gTLDs since 2013.

When .adult, .sex and .porn launched, without the possibility of Sunrise B blocks, they got about 2,000 regular sunrise registrations each. And that’s extraordinarily high — for most new gTLDs a couple hundred was a good turnout.

Third, the .xxx launch attracted a whole lot of controversy and overreaction, and the .xxx zone file today contains a lot of Sunrise B crap.

When I scrolled a little through the zone, cherry-picking silly-looking blocks in 2019, I found these examples:

100percentwholewheatthatkidslovetoeat.xxx, 101waystoleaveagameshow.xxx, 1firstnationalmergersandacquisitions.xxx, 1stchoiceliquorsuperstore.xxx, 2bupushingalltherightbuttons.xxx, 247claimsservicethesupportyouneed30minutesguaranteed.xxx, 3pathpowerdeliverysystembypioneermagneticsinc.xxx

Is it worth $400 a year to block the trademark “100 Percent Whole Wheat That Kids Love To Eat”? Is there any real danger of a cybersquatter going after that particular brand (apart from the fact that I’ve now written about it twice)?

Kirsch said a “small percentage” of Sunrise B owners have already said they don’t want to convert, but given that the rest will auto-convert, and that the registrars are doing all the customer-facing stuff, the company has limited visibility into likely uptake.

Brian King, director of policy at MarkMonitor, told us: “We generally encourage our clients to consider blocks. They can be cost effective and a lot of times clients would rather have their brand be unavailable without having to register in TLDs where they don’t want to own domain registrations for any number of reasons.”

One reason brand owners may want to consider converting to AdultBlock — it’s rumored that GoDaddy will be relaxing its eligibility criteria for .xxx next year, removing the requirement for registrants to have a nexus to the porn industry.

It’s always been kind of a bullshit rule, basically a hack to allow ICM to run a “sponsored” TLD under ICANN’s rules from the 2003 application round, but doing away with it would potentially make it easier for cybersquatters to get their hands on .xxx domains.

CSC told customers in a recent webinar that the rules are likely to be changed next year, increasing the risk of cybersquatting.

There’s some circumstantial evidence to suggest that CSC might be on to something — pretty much every “sponsored” gTLD from the same 2003 application round as .xxx has relaxed their reg rules to some extent, sometimes when their contracts come up for renewal and ICANN tries to normalize them with the text of the standard 2012-round agreement.

And GoDaddy’s .xxx contract with ICANN is being renegotiated right now. It was due to expire in March, but it was extended in February until December 15, a little under a month from now. We may soon see ICANN open up the new text for public comment.

Kirsch, who’s not part of the negotiations, could not confirm that the eligibility relaxation is going to happen or that it’s something GoDaddy is pushing for.

If it were to happen, it wouldn’t be for some time, and it wouldn’t necessarily impact on the December 1 deadline for Sunrise B conversions, which is going to be interesting to watch in its own right.

“There are registrations that are protecting people’s trademarks that are expiring and our primary objective here is to ensure that that protection continues, and that’s what we’ll do,” GoDaddy’s Kirsch said.

“If we just let them expire, it would create a lot of opportunity for brand infringement. Faced with that choice, our primary objective is to protect trademark owners,” he said.

Now celebrities and politicians can block their porn names

Celebrities and holders of unregistered trademarks are now able to buy porn domain blocks from MMX.

The company’s subsidiary, ICM Registry, has broadened its eligibility criteria in order to shift more units of the product, upon which it is banking much of its growth hopes.

Previously, to get an AdultBlock subscription you either had to have previously blocked your brand using ICM’s Sunrise B scheme, which ran in 2011, or to have a trademark registered in the Trademark Clearinghouse.

Now, you don’t need to be in the TMCH, and your trademark does not even need to be legally registered.

Celebrities and politicians are explicitly covered. They have to provide evidence to prove their fame, such as IMDB profiles or movie posters. Politicians need to provide links or documentation proving their political activities or government roles.

AdultBlock prevents brands being registered in MMX’s .porn, .adult, .xxx and .sex gTLDs, as an alternative to defensive registrations. The AdultBlock+ service also blocks homographs.

When .xxx launched a decade ago, thousands of celebrity names, largely harvested from Wikipedia, were blocked by default and free of charge.

ICM even blocked the names of 2011-era ICANN executives and directors. Then-CEO Rod Beckstrom benefited from a block on rodbeckstrom.xxx that survives to this day. Current CEO Göran Marby does not appear to have afforded the same privilege.

My name is also blocked, because it’s a match with goodness knows how many famous people called Kevin Murphy.

Despite the obviously sensitive nature of the TLDs for many brands, there’s been very little cybersquatting in .xxx in the near-decade since its launch. There have been a few dozen UDRP complaints, and most of those were filed in 2012.

MMX, amid poor renewals for its less porny gTLDs, has placed a lot of focus on AdultBlock renewals for its short-term growth.

The company is in the process of having its assets acquired by GoDaddy for $120 million, with the deal expected to close in August, subject to various approvals.

MMX’s year marked by terrible renewals

MMX saw its revenue dip in 2020, and it reported shocking renewal rates at two of its highest-volume gTLDs, according to the company’s annual financial results, published this morning.

The portfolio registry, which is in the process of selling off essentially its entire operating business to GoDaddy, reported revenue of $16.8 million for the year, down from $17.2 million in 2019.

Profit was up very slighty, to $2.9 million from $2.8 million.

The 2019 results included a few one-off gains, including $588,000 from losing a new gTLD auction, which accounted for most of the 2020 revenue decline.

But the company also reported a 19% decline in domains under management, from 2.46 million to 1.99 million, based on some terrible renewal rates in its .vip and .work gTLDs.

The DUM decline can be attributed mostly to .vip, a popular TLD among Chinese speculators, which started 2020 with around 1.4 million domains but finished the year with just over a million.

.work actually ended the year up on where it started, with around 709,000 names under management.

But MMX today disclosed that the renewal rates for .vip and .work were 36% and 18% respectively. In a business where 70%+ is considered healthy, these are some poor numbers indeed.

However, the company discontinued first-year promotions on these TLDs in 2020, focusing instead on selling domains likely to lead to recurring renewal revenue, which lead to 14% (.vip) and 19% (.work) increases in revenue.

Fewer domains. More money.

MMX said that it is seeing these trends continuing into 2021. Public transaction reports show both these TLDs losing 40-50,0000 names in January. The company expects revenue to fall 4% in the first quarter compared to Q1 2020.

One bright spot appears to be “The Great Relese”, the company’s move last month to mark down hundreds of thousands of premium-priced domains. That’s brought in $170,000 since its April 23 launch.

One basket where the company is placing a lot of its eggs is AdultBlock, the trademark protection service it inherited when it acquired ICM Registry a few years back. It enables customers to block their brands in .xxx, .porn, .adult and .sex without actually having to register the names.

The 10-year period ICM allowed brands to block when it launched in 2011 is coming to an end, so MMX is banking on renewals (which retail at $349 to $799 per year before multi-year discounts) to boost revenue.

“While it is early in the AdultBlock Sunrise B renewal period, we are encouraged by Registrar interest and some early sales of this product,” CEO Tony Farrow said in a statement.

This reliance on AdultBlock for short-term organic growth was one of the reasons MMX is selling up to GoDaddy.

The market-leading registrar and fast-emerging registry consolidator agreed to pay $120 million for MMX’s portfolio, which will leave MMX as a shell company only long enough to distribute the cash to investors before fading away quietly.

That deal has an August deadline to close and is dependent on approvals from business partners, ICANN and the Chinese government.

MMX vows to refocus under new boss after crappy 2020

Kevin Murphy, January 25, 2021, Domain Registries

MMX says it plans to refocus its business on higher-margin products after a 2020 marred by plummeting registrations, product delays and financial irregularities that led to senior management being oustered.

The new gTLD registry also revealed that it laid off 20% of its staff in a “right-sizing” exercise last year. Due to its modest size, this means about four or five people lost their jobs.

The company said today that acting CEO Tony Farrow has been confirmed for the job full-time, and that he will join the board of directors after regulatory checks.

Farrow took over last October, when CEO Toby Hall and CFO Michael Salazar were both ejected after admitting to over-stating MMX’s revenue and profit in 2019.

Now, Farrow says MMX will spend 2021 focusing on “quality” regs — those with a higher chance of renewing or with higher-margin reg fees — and on its AdultBlock services, which block trademarks and typos across its four porn-themed gTLDs.

Overall domains under management declined 19% in 2020, which appears to be almost entirely down to .vip, a cheap gTLD that initially performed strongly with Chinese speculators, losing about half a million names.

AdultBlock, which covers the old ICM Registry portfolio, launched at the end of 2019 with a high price tag and a couple bulk sales, but stalled during 2020. MMX blames this for a 3% decline in overall billings last year.

The company also hinted that it may try to offload some of its crappier gTLDs, saying:

The new executive team is also reviewing the contribution received from each of its TLDs and the growth prospects for each from new sales initiatives to ensure the carrying values associated with each TLD is appropriate going forward.

Farrow said in a news release:

Our FY 2021 plan will focus on AdultBlock sales, extensive release of inventory to the market, quality registrations with the view of future renewal revenue and standardized promotions for our channel partners. It is a straightforward business where focus must remain on the quality of our domain registrations and promotions with our channel partners. We lost some of the momentum after the initial launch of AdultBlock in FY 2019. However, FY 2021 was always the target year for the full rollout of this new product, and I am encouraged by the dialogue with our channel partners to really move AdultBlock in FY 2021.

AdultBlock, which sets trademark-match domains aside as non-resolving reserved names, launched with a price tag of between $349 and $799 per trademark per year.

MMX separately announced today that it is paying ICM Registry’s investors, primarily founder Stuart Lawley, over alleged (and denied) breaches of unspecified warranties made at the time of the acquisition in May 2018.

Farrow was COO of ICM from the 2011 launch of .xxx until the MMX acquisition.

MMX probing accounting of mystery contract

Kevin Murphy, October 12, 2020, Domain Registries

New gTLD registry MMX says it’s looking into whether it incorrectly accounted for about $1 million of revenue last year.

The company told investors Friday that $938,000 of revenue from a single contract was recognized in 2019, but there’s a possibility it should have been classified as “a refundable deposit against future sales or deferred revenue”.

The same goes for $25,000 recognized in the first half of this year.

The contract generated cash of $1.125 million in 2019.

Regular domain sales are usually recognized over the course of the registration and show up on the balance sheet as deferred revenue.

It’s not known which contract MMX is referring to in its notice. I’m tempted to wonder whether it relates to AdultBlock, the defensive registration service available across the company’s four porn-themed gTLDs.

The company had previously reported $1.1 million in revenue (rather than cash) from the sale of 2,000 AdultBlock regs for 2019, which puts it in the right ball-park, but it seems unlikely that so many domains would be blocked under a single contract.

MMX said the worst that could happen is that it would be on the hook for $1 million if it turned out the cash was refundable, adding that it had $7.3 million in the bank at the end of June.

Its share price took a battering anyway, losing almost a fifth of its value on Friday.

No .sex please, we’re infected!

MMX saw poorer-than-expected sales of porn-related defensive registrations in the first half of the year, the only blip in what was otherwise a strong period for the company.

The registry updated the market today to say that its domain name base grew by 31% year over year during the half, ending June with 2.38 million names under management. It only grew by 19% in the same period last year.

Billings for H1 were up 7% at $7.9 million, MMX said.

But because the mix shifted away from one-off brokered sales, which are registered on the earnings report as a lump sum, and towards regular automated registrations, which are recognized over the lifetime of the reg, MMX expects to report revenue 5% down on last year.

While that’s all fair enough, the company said that it didn’t sell as many defensive blocks in .xxx, .sex, .porn and .adult as it had expected, which it blamed on coronavirus:

Management also notes that expected H1 channel sales from the Company’s brand protection activity were held back due to the impact of COVID-19, but anticipates those brand protection initiatives that were delayed in Q2 will resume in H2.

It’s a reference to the AdultBlock and AdultBlock Plus services launched last year, which enable trademark owners to block (and not use) their marks in all four adult TLDs for about $350 to $800 a year.

Porn-block retail prices revealed. Wow.

Kevin Murphy, August 20, 2019, Domain Registrars

The first retail prices for MMX’s porn-blocking AdultBlock services have been revealed, and they ain’t cheap.
The registrar 101domain yesterday announced that it has started offering AdultBlock and sister service AdultBlock+, and published its pricing.
Trademark owners wanting to block a single string across .sex, .porn, .adult and .xxx will pay $349 per year with the vanilla, renew-annually service.
If they want the AdultBlock+ service, which also blocks homographs, they’ll pay $799 a year or $7,495 for the maximum 10-year term.
Compare this to the Sunrise B offer that ICM Registry made to trademark owners in 2011, where a string in .xxx cost roughly $200 to $300 for a 10-year block.
The two services are not directly comparable, of course. AdultBlock covers three additional TLDs and the AdultBlock+ service covers confusingly similar variants.
But trademark owners are buying peace of mind that their brands won’t be registered as porn sites, and the cost of that peace of mind just increased tenfold.
AdultBlock domains don’t resolve, and are a lot cheaper than domain registrations.
Renewing a single string in all four gTLDs at 101domain prices would cost around $480 a year, so customers will pay about 27% less buying a block instead.
The cost of the first year for those four domains would be $360, just $11 more than the AdultBlock price, according to 101domain’s price list.
MMX, which acquired the gTLD portfolio from ICM last year, is offering a discount on the AdultBlock+ service for customers buying before the end of 2019.
101domain is offering 10 years of AdultBlock+ for $3,999, a saving of $3,500.
101domain is not known as a particularly expensive registrar, so prices elsewhere in the industry could go higher.