Should generic .com domain names never be entitled to trademark protection? When a domain name like booking.com is identified as a brand by the public, should it still be denied trademark protection as a matter of law? The ICA takes a position on this difficult question in an amicus brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court of the United States through its counsel, Wiley Rein LLP.
The brief asks the Supreme Court to affirm the current legal status quo as per the decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit holding that the addition of a top-level domain such as “.com” to an otherwise generic term may result in a protectible trademark where evidence demonstrates that the trademark’s primary significance to the public as a whole is the source of a product or service and not the product or service itself.
Many domain name owners have heavily invested in generic domain names which through extensive use and promotion, whether by domain name investors or a subsequent purchaser, are sometimes capable of acquiring distinctiveness and thereby affording trademark protection. Denying generic domain names the opportunity to ever be registered as a trademark would devalue otherwise valuable intellectually property assets by making them unappealing to companies seeking to develop brands that could be registered as trademarks. Denying the possibility of trademark protection to generic domain names would not benefit domain name investors, but would rather harm them, by severely limiting the commercial potential of such generic domain names.
Additionally, new top-level domains – like “.homes,” “.inc,” “.doctor,” “.law,” “.bank,” “.cars,” “.news,” “.cpa,” “.ngo,” and “.organic” – hold great promise for improved e-commerce and online security, but their adoption will be stunted if the Government succeeds in foreclosing trademark protection for domain names in all cases, regardless of the degree of use and promotion.
The ICA’s Code of Conduct enshrines protection for intellectual property rights. The ICA’s brief explains how enabling trademark protection where warranted can help prevent two of the most common malicious activities involving the domain names, namely typosquatting and domain name theft. The ICA’s amicus filing supports intellectual property rights where warranted and stands against cybersquatting and malicious domain name theft.
To read the ICA’s amicus brief, please click here: Booking.com Amicus Brief
The ICA wishes to express its great appreciation to Wiley Rein LLP and attorney David Weslow (the winner of the inaugural ICA Lonnie Borck Memorial Award) for submitting such a well-argued brief on issues of importance to the domain name investment community.
In the recent case concerning Chatroulette.org , the Panel demonstrated the responsible and prudent approach in evaluating evidence in the UDRP. The Panel stated as follows:
“The Panel takes the view that the Respondent’s denial of knowledge of the existence of the Complainant and his trade mark at that date is credible enough to require more from the Complainant to overcome. The Panel concludes that it would be unsafe on the evidence before it to reject the Respondent’s denial and conclude that the Respondent intentionally set out to acquire the Domain Name in bad faith to target the Complainant.” [emphasis added]
A Panel’s mandate and indeed its sole jurisdiction, is to only order domain names to be transferred in “clear cases”. It is crucial to recall what WIPO Panelist David Bernstein stated 18 years in his presentation to the WIPO, and what remains equally important today:
“Because of the truncated nature of the proceedings, electronic dispute resolution is not well suited to cases with hotly disputed factual assertions, requiring complex credibility determinations. Given the absence of a live hearing, cases that turn on disputed facts should instead be resolved in court, where discovery and cross-examination can permit a fact finder to navigate the shoals of conflicting testimony. [emphasis added]
A responsible and prudent UDRP panel that upholds the spirit and intent of the UDRP, will generally refrain from jumping to conclusions without an adequate evidentiary basis. This can sometimes be difficult to do, as UDPR panelists are often wise and experienced and may be tempted to resolve a dispute that otherwise should be left unresolved, since the UDRP is simply not equipped to handle disputes where there are competing rights or contested versions of material facts (See also for example, Quarterview v. Quarterview Co. Ltd., eResolution Case Numbers AF-0209a and AF-0209b) and Adaptive Molecular Technologies Inc. v. Priscilla Woodward (the existence of significant factual and legal issues makes this case inappropriate for resolution under the Policy).
The ICA acknowledges and appreciates the efforts and wisdom of the distinguished Panel in the Chatroulette.org case, which consisted of Tony Willoughby (Presiding Panelist), Alexandre Nappey, and Fernando Triana. They upheld the fairness of the UDRP procedure and employed the appropriate circumspect approach.
What do these Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP) filings have in common? —
The Internet Commerce Association (ICA), a non-profit trade group representing the domain industry, applauds the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) for removing misleading guidance from the newly released updated version 3.0 of its Overview of WIPO Panel Views on Selected UDRP Questions that in the previous version had granted undeserved legitimacy to a misconstruction of the UDRP commonly known as the Retroactive Bad Faith theory. Read more
Since its establishment in 1999, the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy has required complainants to prove inter alia, “bad faith registration”. In practice, this has meant that where a domain name was registered before a trademark came into existence, that “bad faith registration” would be considered chronologically impossible.
Washington, DC; December 11, 2015 —
The Internet Commerce Association today released the following initial statement in regard to the November 30 decision of the WIPO Administrative Panel in the case of Camilla Australia Pty Ltd v. Domain Admin, Mrs Jello, LLC (Case No. D2015-1593; http://www.wipo.int/amc/en/domains/search/text.jsp?case=D2015-1593):
The egregious three-member panel decision in this Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP) dispute departs substantially from prevailing UDRP practice and relies on criteria inconsistent with those set forth in the UDRP as adopted by ICANN. This decision demonstrates once again that review and reform of the UDRP by ICANN is an urgent priority.
“The panelists on the Camilla.com dispute disregarded 15 years of UDRP practice, rewrote and distorted the Policy, and set an impossible standard for domain registrants to meet to avoid the loss of their valuable generic domains” said ICA Board member Nat Cohen, President of Telepathy Inc. “If this decision stands and guides panelists in other future cases, it would undermine the rights of millions of domain owners, undercut much of the domain industry, and would encourage further abuse of the UDRP system”, added Cohen.
The decision states that “the Panel accepts that the Respondent did not and could not reasonably have known of the Complainant’s trademark when it registered the disputed domain name in May 2009”. Based on prevailing and proper UDRP practice, that should have ended the analysis; the Respondent clearly could not have had bad faith intent when it registered the domain. Indeed, in ICA’s view, at that point the Panel would have had clear grounds to cite the Complainant for attempted reverse domain name hijacking. Complainant received its Australian trademark more than two years after the U.S.-based Respondent registered the domain, and only has a pending “intent to use” application for a U.S. trademark.
Instead, the panelists created new and unprecedented duties for registrants, proclaiming that a “registrant of domain names that adopts a PPC revenue model must ensure that after registration the disputed domain name is not used in a deceptive or confusing manner with new or developing trademarks” and a “registrant of domain names from the moment of acquisition must be prepared to take necessary steps to ensure that the PPC links generated by algorithm do not infringe existing trademarks, or any trademarks that may emerge in future”. (Emphasis added.) The panel’s decision would place a burden on domain registrants of generic words to monitor ongoing trademark registrations in every nation in the world. It would also require them to influence the proprietary ad placement algorithms of Yahoo!, Google, and other major online ad providers. Both of these new responsibilities are nowhere to be found in the UDRP rules and are impossible to meet.
The Camilla decision overthrows an important balance between trademark and domain registrant rights and provides a blueprint for any future trademark registrant to steal valuable generic domains without paying market value by simply initiating a UDRP action.
“While ICA respects trademark rights, the UDRP cannot be allowed to become a vehicle for legitimizing domain theft,” said Cohen.
The decision of whether to appeal this UDRP decision lies with the registrant. ICA believes that this decision should be overturned under the U.S. Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA). If an appeal is filed, ICA will give full consideration to providing support to help persuade the court that the panel’s finding of bad faith registration and use is contrary to U.S. law.
ICA and its Counsel and legal advisory group are continuing to review the decision and may issue a further statement once that review is completed.
On November 30th ICA filed its comment letter regarding the “Preliminary Issue Report on a GNSO Policy Development Process to Review All Rights Protection Mechanisms in All gTLDs” that was published for public comment on October 9, 2015. ICA’s complete comment can be viewed at http://forum.icann.org/lists/comments-rpm-prelim-issue-09oct15/msg00021.html, and all 24 filed comments are available at http://forum.icann.org/lists/comments-rpm-prelim-issue-09oct15/index.html.
The principal question raised by the Report was whether the review and possible adjustment of new gTLD RPMs and the review and potential reform of the UDRP should be combined or separated. On that key decision, our comment letter said that the RPMs should be addressed prior to the UDRP review for these reasons:
We believe that the RPM review and the UDRP review each constitutes a highly complex array of interrelated questions and judgments, and that trying to combine the two into a single mega-review will tax any Working Group (WG) inordinately.
In particular, the UDRP review will constitute the first comprehensive inquiry into ICANN’s oldest Consensus Policy. It may address structural issues; such as whether ICANN should enter into uniform contractual agreements with all UDRP providers, whether there should be clear boundaries to prevent individual dispute providers’ Supplementary Rules from influencing decisional outcomes, and whether an internal appeals procedure should provide an avenue for a ‘UDRP Supreme Court’ to address and reconcile disparate decisions by different providers on nearly identical fact patterns.
…Both domain registrants and trademark owner complainants deserve, after nearly two decades of unexamined use, a UDRP review and reform process that is accorded adequate time for comprehensive review and development of subsequent recommendations. This review of necessity must be preceded by the RPM review, as it was the intent of the GNSO Council in 2011 that the UDRP review be informed by that of the RPMs and by any changes made to them. Further, as staff notes at page 8 of the Report, one result of “this approach is the fact that community consideration of the more general overarching issue concerning the comprehensiveness of all the RPMs as a set of aggregate protections for trademark holders in all gTLDs, as well as the issue of whether any of the new RPMs should be considered Consensus Policies like the UDRP, will necessarily be postponed to the second phase of work”. Unlike staff, we do not view that consideration as a drawback but as a far more responsible approach than considering integration of any of the new gTLD RPMs in legacy gTLD without knowing whether or in what manner they may be altered.
We agree with staff that “One benefit of this two-pronged approach is better alignment of the timing of the work on reviewing the new RPMs with the operational reviews of the New gTLD Program (including the CCT Review) and, conceivably, a new PDP on New gTLD Subsequent Procedures”. We fully expect that there will be substantial interest in completing the RPM review prior to the opening of any second round of new gTLDs, and that consideration provides another reason for structural separation. If the RPM and UDRP reviews were addressed together, substantial pressure could arise to truncate the UDRP portion lest it delay the timing and adoption of final RPM recommendations. As a result this first-ever UDRP review could get short shrift and inadequate attention.
Many of the other groups and individuals who filed comments also took the view that the RPM and UDRP reviews should be separate, with the RPMs teed up first.
What did surprise us was the reluctance of the trademark community to even contemplate a review of the UDRP, much less consider any changes based on nearly twenty years of experience with it.
The International Trademark Association (INTA) asserted that it is “is strongly opposed to opening the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) to review as the UDRP has been functioning efficiently and well for over fifteen years. It is important to maintain this effective mechanism which combats the most blatant instances of cybersquatting within the domain name system. Any review or subsequent modifications could jeopardize the benefits that the UDRP is intended to provide to trademark owners.” Having attended INTA conferences along with thousands of others, and seen the money invested in global branding as well as the sector’s political influence, it strains credulity to believe that trademark owners could be “rolled’ in the course of a UDRP review.
ICANN’s Intellectual Property Constituency (IPC) warned “that the complexity of any review would be immense and the drain on resources considerable, with a risk of creating new problems via an overly complicated review process… the IPC has a serious concern that if a review were to be carried out, there is a risk of a polarization of views into two camps – each with a fear that the other camp would either dilute or overly strengthen the UDRP. Improvements sought by one side would be seen as potentially abusive to registrants, improvements sought by the other as potentially diluting the effectiveness of a mechanism for resolving disputes efficiently… if a review of the UDRP as a policy is to be considered, an “Expert Group” should be assembled to carry out this review.” For ICA’s part, we think that, just like war is too important to just be left to the generals, UDRP review and reform is too important to just be left to “experts” and must include participation by those with broader views of the UDRP’s impact on domain registrants and free expression, among other key considerations.
And UN agency and accredited UDRP provider the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) opined that “the UDRP continues to function as intended. In its harmonized criteria and universal application, this anti-cybersquatting mechanism has come to be recognized as an international policy success… Destabilization of the predictable UDRP framework may have a range of unintended consequences. It would disrupt the body of precedent carefully developed by hundreds of panelists from across jurisdictions in tens of thousands of cases… Each day, the UDRP demonstrates the flexibility to meet the demands of an evolving DNS; it does not need system-wide updates that would imprudently limit this flexibility”. To the contrary, domain investors would respond that this “flexibility” is code for a lack of any binding precedent that makes the UDRP more of a casino game in a world of proliferating UDRP providers.
We are pleased that ICANN’s Business Constituency, of which ICA is a member, took a more balanced approach, stating, “While the BC believes that the UDRP is working well overall, it now seems timely to engage in a review of its performance with an eye toward considering possible improvements, so long as that UDRP review commences after completion of the RPM review.”
In response to the trademark community’s message of opposition and excessive caution, ICA added this final point to our comment’s Executive Summary, to wit:
Finally, we have strong disagreement with the view expressed by a minority of commenters that the UDRP review anticipated by the GNSO Council’s Resolution of December 15, 2011 should not proceed at all, and that any such undertaking would be unduly arduous and dangerous. The UDRP is the only ICANN Consensus Policy that has never been reviewed. Like any human undertaking, it is not perfect and was drafted by individuals who could not have known how it would be implemented in practice. Any UDRP review should of course be fully informed by the actual record of UDRP practice and experience of participants, and should proceed carefully. But we are confident that a good faith UDRP review that considers the legitimate rights and interests of both registrants and complainants, as well as related public policy issues, can produce a more balanced and consistent system that preserves the fundamental virtues of the UDRP while yielding modifications that benefit all affected parties.
ICA looks forward to participating in both the RPM and UDRP reviews. ICANN staff is scheduled to deliver a Report summarizing comments and suggesting next steps by December 10th. Following receipt of that report, the GNSO Council will decide on a way forward and, if ICA’s and other commenters’ proposed procedure is followed, will consider a draft Charter for an RPM review working group in the initial months of 2016.
Throughout the coming review processes, ICA will be an active participant seeking to protect the legitimate rights and interests of domain investors and developers and to bring greater balance between trademark and domain rights.
Here’s the rest of our comment letter’s Executive Summary:
On November 5, 2015 the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) released the official text of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). That text consists of 30 separate Chapters totaling more than 2,000 pages, and is accompanied by four additional Annexes and dozens of Related Instruments. Only those who negotiated it are likely to have a detailed understanding of all its provisions, and even that probably overstates reality.
The TPP’s intellectual property (IP) provisions are contained in Chapter 18, which runs for a mere 74 pages. While the majority of these provisions address patents, copyrights, and trademarks, Article 18.28 deals with Domain Names (its full text is reproduced at the end of this article). While of direct relevance to the domain name industry as well as the trademark sector, these provisions were not deemed sufficiently important to merit a single word of explanation in the IP Rights issue paper or fact sheet issued by USTR.
There are twelve signatory nations to the TPP – Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States. Article 18.28 requires each of them to do two things with regard to domain names:
Neither of these provisions is earth-shattering, and to some degree they are even positive for the domain sector. Most major ccTLDs already provide access to non-judicial dispute resolution between trademark rights holders and domain registrants, and some even go beyond TPP’s requirements. The .US ccTLD, for example, which had already adopted the UDRP, announced in June 2104 that it was adopting the Uniform Rapid Suspension (URS) procedure which was developed for ICANN’s new gTLD program but is not yet a Consensus Policy applicable to legacy gTLDs. Further, the .US versions of both UDRP and URS require the rights holder to only demonstrate that “the domain name(s) were registered or are being used in bad faith”, while the ICANN versions require evidence of both bad faith registration and use. From a registrant’s point of view, the most positive element of the TPP language is its emphasis on a “fair and equitable” process and its preservation of court access.
As for online access to registrant data, the TPP’s deference to law and policy regarding privacy and personal data protection does not appear to attempt to influence the ongoing attempt by ICANN stakeholders to fashion a new database policy to replace WHOIS. Nor does it require ccTLDs to prohibit the use of privacy and proxy services (which are permitted, for example, by the .AU registry).
So Article 18.28 seems to at least satisfy the “do no harm” standard.
These provisions do not take effect until a signatory nation take the additional steps required under its law to formally adopt the TPP. In the U.S. that requires Congressional approval. President Obama’s November 5th letter to the House and Senate leaders concludes with this statement:
“Consistent with the Trade Priorities Act, I am sending this notification at least 90 days in advance of signing the TPP Agreement. My Administration looks forward to working with the Congress in developing appropriate legislation to approve and implement this TPP Agreement.”
The TPP faces stiff political opposition within the U.S. Most Democrat members of Congress are opposed to it due to strong resistance from unions and other interest groups.
While we don’t see them as being in the camp of either U.S. political party, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recently declared that the publication of TPP’s IP provisions “confirms our worst fears about the agreement, and dashes the few hopes that we held out that its most onerous provisions wouldn’t survive to the end of the negotiations”. EFF took a far more jaundiced view than our own regarding the domain name provisions, observing that it “requires countries to adopt an equivalent to ICANN’s flawed Uniform Domain-Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP), despite the fact that this controversial policy is overdue for a formal review by ICANN” (Note: Such UDRP review is expected to commence in the first half of 2016.)
With the U.S. elections just a year away, U.S. Presidential and Congressional electoral politics are converging to bear on the TPP’s prospects. Presidential Contender Bernie Sanders is a long-time and highly vocal detractor of the pact. His official position states that he:
“Opposed NAFTA, CAFTA, permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China, the TPP, and other free-trade agreements. These deals kill American jobs by shifting work overseas to nations which fail to provide worker protections and pay extremely low wages.”
Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, who pronounced the TPP to be the “gold standard” of modern trade deals while serving as Secretary of State in the Obama Administration, reversed that stance on October 7th, shortly after the final text was published on WikiLeaks, stating:
“As of today, I am not in favor of what I have learned about it. I have said from the very beginning that we had to have a trade agreement that would create good American jobs, raise wages and advance our national security. I still believe that’s the high bar we have to meet. I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about the agreement, but I’m worried. I appreciate the hard work that President Obama and his team put into this process and recognize the strides they made. But the bar here is very high and, based on what I have seen, I don’t believe this agreement has met it.”
That position, alleged by some to constitute a “flip-flop “, caused the Washington Post to opine in an editorial:
“Bowing to pressure from the Democratic Party’s ascendant protectionist wing, would-be presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has come out against President Obama’s freshly negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. The most hopeful thing to be said about this deeply disappointing abandonment of the president she served, and the internationalist tendency in Democratic ideology she once embodied, is that it is so transparently political… To be sure, Ms. Clinton salted her anti-TPP statement with qualifiers: “What I know about it.” “As of today.” “I am not in favor of what I have learned about it.” And so on. In other words, there is still a chance that later on, if or when she’s president, and it is to her advantage, she may discover some decisive good point in the TPP that would let her take a different position without, technically, contradicting herself. Cynical? Perhaps, but as we said, that’s the hope.”
On the Republican side, leading Presidential contender Donald Trump has made his TPP opposition clear, stating inimitably in a November 9th interview, ““The deal is insanity. That deal should not be supported and it should not be allowed to happen.” While Jeb Bush has voiced support for TPP, others vying for the GOP nomination do not appear to be eager to take a hard position that could antagonize an already disaffected and generally anti-establishment voter base, particularly within its “Tea Party” contingent. More establishment Republican corporate interests tend to favor the TPP, but even in that camp there are notable industries and major companies with strong concerns about various aspects of the agreement.
Congress voted in June 2015 to give the President “fast track” trade promotion authority for the TPP, but that does not mean that a vote will come quickly — just that the TPP text cannot be amended by Congress. The earliest Congress might vote on TPP is Spring 2016. But given that 2016 will be a politically charged year with control of the House, Senate, and White House all theoretically up for grabs, neither party is anxious to take a vote that could alienate millions of potential voters. So there’s a good chance that the final decision on TPP will be left to the next President and Congress sometime in 2017.
The TPP’s signatory nations do not include the largest economic power on the western shore of the Pacific, China, and that omission is to some extent meant to deliberately counter that nation’s economic designs for the Pacific Rim. As former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers just described that strategy:
“The Council on Foreign Relations, hardly a source of xenophobic or radical ideas, recently issued a report drafted by leading U.S. diplomats condemning this country’s efforts to build up China within the international economic order and calling for a “balancing strategy” that includes “new preferential trading arrangements. . .that consciously exclude China.” No small part of the case being made by the Obama administration for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal involves the idea that it will promote competitiveness vis-a-vis China and reduce China’s influence in determining global trade rules.”
But global investment flows route around trade policies just like the Internet routes around obstacles, and Chinese investors are today taking actions that may elevate the status of domain names in future trade agreements. Domain name registrations have recently been hitting record levels and, as reported in The Domains, most of the demand seems to be coming from purchasers in China who want to diversify out of equities and real estate and now view domains as an asset class with multiple valuable attributes, including good price appreciation potential.
That changing economic role for domains gives hope that, when the next multinational trade pact is under development, the domain investment industry will be well positioned to make its own case that domains must be viewed not just through the prism of potential trademark infringement but as a valuable intangible asset unto itself, and one that is equally deserving of uniform international recognition and protections.
Domain Name Provisions of the TPP:
Article 18.28: Domain Names
(a) an appropriate procedure for the settlement of disputes, based on, or modelled along the same lines as, the principles established in the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy, as approved by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) or that:
(i) is designed to resolve disputes expeditiously and at low cost;
(ii) is fair and equitable;
(iii) is not overly burdensome; and
(iv) does not preclude resort to judicial proceedings; and
(b) online public access to a reliable and accurate database of contact information concerning domain-name registrants,
in accordance with each Party’s law and, if applicable, relevant administrator policies regarding protection of privacy and personal data.
17 The Parties understand that such remedies may, but need not, include, among other things, revocation, cancellation, transfer, damages or injunctive relief.
On November 10th the US District Court for the District of Columbia granted ICANN’s motion to quash a writ of attachment and a related motion for further discovery in a politically charged case in which private plaintiffs sought to seize control of Iran’s .IR country code top level domain (ccTLD). The litigation was brought under a US law that allows victims of terrorism and their families to seize the assets of foreign nations that funded the related terrorist acts. While most of the plaintiffs were targeting Iran the decision also covered the ccTLDs for Syria and North Korea.
In its Order in the case of Stern v. Islamic Republic of Iran the Court wrestled with the issue of whether a ccTLD could be attached in satisfaction of a judgment. In reaching its decision, the Court stated:
There is little authority on the question of whether Internet domain names may be attached in satisfaction of a judgment. Indeed, no reported decision of any American court appears to have decided the specific issue of whether a ccTLD may be attached. The Virginia Supreme Court’s discussion of these issues in Network Solutions, Inc. v. Umbra Int’l, Inc., 529 S.E.2d 80 (Va. 2000) is helpful in illuminating the questions presented. There, the court held that a domain name could not be garnished by a judgment creditor under the relevant Virginia statute because it was “inextricably bound” to the domain name services provided by the registry operator. Id at 86. The court elaborated: “[W]hatever contractual rights the judgment debtor has in the domain names at issue in this appeal, those rights do not exist separate and apart from [the registry] services that make the domain names operational Internet addresses.” Id. The court further observed that allowing garnishment of a registry’s services as part of garnishing a right to a domain name would mean that “practically any service would be garnishable.” Id. at 86-87.
The Court finds this reasoning persuasive as applied to District of Columbia attachment law as well. The ccTLDs exist only as they are made operational by the ccTLD managers that administer the registries of second level domain names within them and by the parties that cause the ccTLDs to be listed on the root zone file. A ccTLD, like a domain name, cannot be conceptualized apart from the services provided by these parties. The Court cannot order plaintiffs’ insertion into this arrangement. (Emphasis added)
As can be seen, this Federal Court decided this 2014 case involving a top level ccTLD by relying on a 2000 Virginia Supreme Court decision involving a second level domain at a generic top level domain (gTLD).
But, while analogizing the operation of a ccTLD to the provision of services, the Court did not decide that TLDs or, by analogy, second level domains were not a form of property.
In footnote 2 of its decision the Court makes that distinction quite clear by again citing the 2000 Network Solutions case:
The Court notes that judicial decisions have construed domain names to be a form of intangible property. See, e.g., Kremen v. Cohen, 337 F.3d 1024, 1030 (9th Cir. 2002). But the conclusion that ccTLDs may not be attached in satisfaction of a judgment under District of Columbia law does not mean that they cannot be property. It simply means that they are not attachable property within this statutory scheme. Indeed, in Network Solutions, the Virginia Supreme Court nodded to this precise point in stating that it was not “essential to the outcome of this case to decide whether the circuit court correctly characterized a domain name as a ‘form of intellectual property.”‘ (Emphasis added)
This decision thus leaves open the possibility that domains may constitute a form of intellectual property that cannot be attached to satisfy a judgment. Reaching that conclusion in future litigation might provide domain owners with arguments for greater parity with trademark rights while protecting their assets against attachment and other legal processes.
ICANN issued a press release in response to the decision in which John Jeffrey, its General Counsel and Secretary, stated, “We are pleased that the court ruled in our favor on the grounds that the ccTLDs are not property, subject to attachment. The court’s ruling demonstrates a technical understanding of the DNS, and the role of ccTLDs in the single, global, interoperable Internet.” Unfortunately, that declaration misstates the judicial opinion, which took no position on whether ccTLDs were some form of property, but simply determined that their service-like aspects protected them from judicial attachment.
It is not known at present whether plaintiffs in the case will seek to appeal this important decision. In addition to adding to the slim body of court decisions regarding the legal status of domains, the ruling also defuses a huge potential political problem for both ICANN and the United States in the midst of ongoing ICANN community discussions of the IANA functions transition and related enhanced accountability measures for ICANN. If a US Court – especially one as prestigious as the DC District Court – declared that it had the authority to order the transfer of a nation’s ccTLD to private litigants it would undoubtedly trigger a global outcry against ICANN’s continued status as a non-profit, private-sector led corporation under California law. That in turn could strengthen the hand of those nations that would prefer to see ICANN’s functions transferred to the International Telecommunications Union or to a newly created UN agency under intergovernmental control.