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Call for Domain Owner Code of Rights and Responsibilities

This article discusses grassroots progress toward the development of a "Domain Registrant's Code of Rights and Responsibilities.” This Code is an effort to create a balanced combination of the rights that domain name registrants should enjoy and the responsibilities that domain name registrants should fulfill. Discussion and survey results concerning this Code at domain-related forums show far greater grassroots consensus than one might think between what might be called the "domainer" and "intellectual property" communities. Informal surveys at some domain-related forums show very strong support (with votes running approximately 5 to 1) in favor of this Code. A consensus around such a Code could build a bridge between internet constituencies that are sometimes polarized and could improve the operation of the internet for everyone.

Before discussing this Code further, please consider an analogy. Let's talk trucks. Have you ever driven down the highway and seen a truck loaded with junk bouncing around that is not tied down? Perhaps you even know someone who was behind such a truck when something fell off? The irresponsible actions of the trucker put the lives of everyone behind them at risk. So… how should trucks be viewed? An extreme view might be that truckers can do whatever they want. This view could be summed up by — "Hey. It's my truck. No one tells me how to load it." The trouble with this view is that their actions can hurt other people. A view on the other extreme could be that all trucks should be banned because they are such a potential menace. This view could be summed up by — "Truckers are all junk haulers at heart. The only way to make our highways safe is to ban all trucks." The trouble with this view is that it is unfair to the majority of truckers who operate safely and destroys the economic value from trucking.

A better approach is one that balances trucker rights and responsibilities. Truckers should have the right to own trucks, even a fleet of trucks, for trade and economic gain. Truckers should also have the responsibility to operate their trucks in a safe manner that does not endanger other people. Rights and responsibilities go hand in hand. The same could be said for rights and responsibilities in professions such as accounting, law, and journalism. With this colorful analogy by way of introduction, we now return to discussion of the Registrant's Code.

The Registrant's Code was born out of frustration with polarized views on domain related issues. For example, let's take the issue of trademarks. On the one hand, there is classic cybersquatting wherein someone registers a domain that is a trademarked term and tries to sell it to the trademark holder. This is wrong. On the other hand, there is classic trademark over-reaching wherein someone with a trademark on a phrase (let's say — "Joe's Cars") uses legal threats to try to hijack a generic sub-string domain (let's say — "Cars.com"). This is also wrong. A balanced Registrant's Code of Rights and Responsibilities should say that registrants should not infringe trademarks by cybersquatting domains and trademark holders should not try to hijack domains by over-reaching trademarks.

There are limits to a Code. It is impossible to fully codify law or ethics in a concise code. The Code should deal with broad principles. For example, a Code should not try to summarize the vast body of trademark law. Also, new technology raises new issues and sometimes it takes a while to develop a consensus concerning what is right or wrong. For these reasons, a Code should be relatively short, focus on high level principles, and focus on points for which there is substantive consensus.

It may be worthwhile for me to say a little about who I am and why I am working toward a Code. I wear a couple hats. I have conducted research on domain related issues including "Report on TLD Preference by Country", CircleID, Feb 6, 2004. I am also an enthusiastic domain hobbyist. My day job is as a university professor. Why am I working toward a Code? I am disappointed in the polarized nature of much of the discussion concerning domain names and have idealistic hopes that there can be consensus among domainers and intellectual property constituencies that will improve the internet for everyone — particularly users. Many people have contributed to the development of this Code and I expect it to evolve further. I am just a facilitator giving it a push along the way. I have created a site for its evolution at http://www.RegistrantsCode.com.

Without further ado, the following is the current draft of the Registrant's Code of Rights and Responsibilities. The top part outlines rights that a domain registrant should enjoy. The bottom part outlines responsibilities that a domain registrant should fulfill.

* * *

Registrant's Code of Rights and Responsibilities

REGISTRANT RIGHTS

COMMERCE AND DEVELOPMENT: Domain registrants have the right to register multiple domain names, to develop them or not develop them (analogous to the options available to land owners), earn revenue from them, and sell them for a profit. Domain registrants have the right to pay competitive prices for domain registrations, not prices based on unregulated monopoly power (e.g. for a given extension).

DIRECT NAVIGATION: Domain registrants have the right to have a domain name that is typed by a user into a web browser's address bar continue to resolve to that domain name.

DOMAIN HIJACKING: Domain registrants have the right to register and use generic domains without attempts by trademark holders to over-reach trademark rights and hijack those domains.

DOMAIN THEFT: Domain registrants have the right to secure domain registration without theft. In the event that a domain is stolen, the rightful domain registrant has the right to timely, thorough investigation and action by the appropriate registrar(s) and/or registry to investigate the theft and ensure that the stolen domain is returned to the rightful registrant.

REGISTRANT RESPONSIBILITIES

TRADEMARK INFRINGEMENT: Domain registrants have the responsibility to avoid registering domains in bad faith that infringe on trademarks.

FREELOADING: Domain registrants have the responsibility to pay registration costs and to avoid registering domains for short periods of time to get money from them without paying for them (known as "domain tasting" or "domain kiting").

COMMON DECENCY: Domain registrants have the moral responsibility to avoid registration of domains in a manner that is likely to expose children to adult and/or harmful material. Also, while domain registrants have considerable latitude in what domains they can register and common decency can not be codified, domain registrants who voluntarily support this code should exercise a higher level of moral responsibility by avoiding registration of domains with the primary purpose of personally profiting from specific events of tragedy or human suffering. Registration of domains associated with such events for free distribution to non-profit parties or other genuine charitable purposes can serve the public good.

* * *

What should happen next? Ideally, all the intellectual property lawyers, domainers, corporations and users will join hands around the campfire, sing "Kum-bai-ya"… and a new era of world peace will ensue. Short of that, perhaps a balanced Code like this will gain increasing support from all stakeholders, begin to improve behavior on all sides, and the internet will become a better and safer highway with fewer virtual junk trucks.

Disclaimer: The above views do not represent the views of the University of Minnesota or the Carlson School of Management.

By Robert A. Connor, Associate Professor

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Comments

Re: Call for Domain Owner Code of Rights and Responsibilities By Joe S Alagna  –  Jul 26, 2007 7:09 pm PDT

Bob, The Registrant's Code is a good start and it's nice to see you taking a reasonable position on this, one that respects all positions and players. I mention this in contrast to one or two extreme groups active in the trademark lobby that are trying to "brand" domainers as crooks by associating them all with any illegal online practice they can think of.  In one recent article they attempt to brand almost anyone that invests in domain names as "online scammers", using other terms like: "cybersquatters", "counterfeiters", "malicious coders", "duping customers", "phishers", "defraud", "infringement", "kiters". 

Not once do they mention the considerable and growing good practices in the field that are now fueling much of the growth online.  Legitimate generic domain names are very valuable. They create value for advertisers and for end users who prefer to type in domain names rather than search through search engines (yes there are plenty of people who do this).

Many of these large corporations missed the boat on generic domain names that are used by millions of consumers every day.  These domains are registered and operated by legitimate businesses and they show tremendous promise for the future.  The lobbyists that these corporations are employing seem happy to lump the visionaries who registered these domain names early on into the same batch as real crooks committing the crimes named above.  That approach is not productive for true long term solutions.

Trademarks should be respected but groups like the CADNA are just too extreme, putting out abusive propaganda that gives no recognition to the reasonable practices of the majority of domainers and domain name investors.  InternetCommerce.org (ICA) is doing some good work for the domain name industry.  I hope that CADNA will begin a dialogue with the ICA and find common interests rather than continuing to malign this great growth industry en masse.

CADNA should carefully consider their accusations and the things they are asking for.  The results of their actions and demands could bring the great hope of a robust global online economy to a screeching halt through over-regulation.  That would be good for no one.

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