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Digging up Gold: Domain Names as Property

by Migs Paraz map@internet.org.ph.

Internet Domain Names, the .com and associated stuff that give an easy-to-remember identity to online addresses, has long been under controvery. In recent times, the news has been turnover of the "Global Top Level Domains" .com, .org, and .net from the original InterNIC/Network Solutions managers to a new scheme enginnered by the ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

International domain politics is complex, so let's see how it affects us close to home. Just a few days ago, telecomms giant PLDT filed a suit against the maintainer of the site PLDT.COM. This sets a local precedent, being the first domain name case to hit the local courts. The case raises many questions about the validity of domain names as trademarks (which PLDT insists), and whether "ownership" of a domain is recognized locally, since the domain name system is managed by a US entity and is used worlwide. Perhaps by the time of this article's publication, the case would have already been resolved: watch the archives of the Philippine Cyberspace Review discussion group where this is being talked about.

One interesting thing about the PLDT case is that it reiterates that Network Solutions does not check on the "ownership" of the trademark on the domain. This is how the current maintainer of the domain was able to obtain it. Network Solutions does have a long disclaimer in its application forms that by registering a domain it may not be sued. This is unlike the Philippine domain registration authority which, having a domestic presence and with familiarity of the local scene, gives it the ability to check on the validity of requests. In short, it is much harder to speculate on local domains, those ending in .ph, while it is much easier to register them for "generic" names like computers.com.ph since the .com version is already taken.

So what do we mean by speculate? We mean, we are staking a claim on something, like planting our title on it. That is why we used the gold analogy, except that unlike speculating on gold, oil, or real estate, the product here is purely virtual. Yet the cash paid off for it is purely real, whether the domain's owner got it for the purpose of speculation, or the buyer incidentally wanted the domain later on. This writer knows of one Internet business operator who sold his four-letter domain to a foreign company; another got an offer but was not accepted - they weren't after the money. In another case, a foreign-based speculator registered a domain name for the family name of a prominent local clan, and was selling one of the clan members a vanity e-mail address (such as yourname@familyname.com) for a high price. We advised him not to bother with that, even as there are companies like Mailbank who do that for a reasonable fee, if they have already registered your surname. Otherwise, you have to register your own domain name, but then that will give you full control over your domain - until the contract period lapses.

When the contract period of two years lapses, the domain is up for grabs again unless the registrant paid again. Otherwise, it opens up a window of opportunity for speculators to get in - if the domain is attractive enough. What makes the domain attractive? If it belongs to a high-profile company, or a high-profile site. For some - a common mispelling. For instance, www.altavista.com used to be a real-estate company (note that the word means "high view") that capitalized on surfers who were supposed to be going to www.altavista.digital.com by putting a link to the search engine and even ads. Digital (now part of Compaq) figured it was worth the $3M to buy it.

So hold on your domain folks, or if you wish, you can speculate. It's not illegal, though some might think it's unethical. Just hold on to your browser and your listing of interesting companies, and your $70 InterNIC registration fee. Personally, this writer thinks it's a business similar to operating a gambling joint, so operator beware!

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