Fight the Power in Domain-Name Disputes

My trouble with the libertarian gospel is that it works only for the strong.

The domain-name mess is a great example. Every month business names, which should cost (at most) $35 per year, rise in price like baseball tickets. At a recent corporate-name unveiling I attended in San Francisco, the new outfit admitted it took a ragged name mainly for the short URL.

Speculators defend the system vehemently and attack critics bitterly. They see names as real estate they have creatively staked out and figure developers should owe them.

But the biggest beneficiaries are multinational corporations. Prices are driven up not by individuals but by the registrars themselves, who have gotten into speculation with both feet.

So the recent unveiling of new top-level domains (TLDs) was seen not as an attempt to stabilize the market (or even pop the bubble) but as (at best) the opening of new territory for speculation or (at worst) an attack on current players.

The advantages for big companies go beyond their participation in speculation. Big companies can abuse what laws do exist, especially the rules on copyright and trademark. Big companies have trademarks and big law firms to defend them. These days they usually defend those trademarks by seizing other folks’ domain names.

Three brief examples of the present abuse should suffice.

Procter & Gamble was an early hoarder of domain names. It claimed most covered products it was working on or areas where it had leadership. But now that prices are high it is thinking differently. It has begun taking profits on its cybersquatting, selling names like flu.com.

Wal-Mart’s online efforts have, on the whole, been humorous. But its efforts at domain-name hoarding aren’t funny. The company has, through its lawyers, been claiming every Wal-Mart-related domain name out there, with or without the hyphen, including any name that might one day be used to criticize the company. The fact that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) finally said its lawyers couldn’t bully critics out of a long-winded Wal-Mart misspelling — wallmartcanadasucks.com — doesn’t mean its actions haven’t been egregious.

I saved the best example for last. J.K. Rowling began publishing her “Harry Potter” books long after the web was spun. Harry Potter was never intended as a web property. Still, tons of kids began building fan sites around the character, where they would exchange “Potterana” and speculate on what might happen next.

What happened next was an inevitable movie deal. And when Warner Brothers got the contract, it came down on those kiddies like He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named did on Cedric Diggory. (You should look up the reference — the books are really excellent.) Warner sent its lawyers out to seize every fan site in sight. Basically, it went on a campaign against the goodwill Rowling had spent years building, against the children Rowling had inspired. And, on the whole, it got away with it.

My point is that we need rules and someone to enforce them. (The easiest rule is one domain name to a site; more are really not needed.) We need to pop this speculative bubble, and the market won’t. We need Internet governance that is willing to fight the powerful. Do it for the kids.

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