Tuesday, 1 July 2008

ICANN in Paris (part deux)

Dear 'What Else is There' Bloggers,

in what can only be characterised as a turning point for trademarks law, the ICANN Board has announced that they have approved, despite serious objections and concnerns, the biggest-ever expansion of the gTLD space. Under this new scheme, ICANN potentially permits everyone to become a registry and run a gTLD.

Under the new draft proposal, which is anticipated to be materialised within the next six to nine months, applicants will have to successfully pass a number of tests and meet a set of criteria before they can be considered eligible to acquire a registry status. These criteria are substantive in nature and will focus on the following issues: string confusion; existing legal rights; morality and public order; and, finally, community objection. ICANN itself will not be the authority assigned to evaluate and examine the applications, but instead, according to Karla Valente, gTLD Program Director at ICANN, disputes will be handled by "an international organisation with experience in IP". After the consultation process, which most likely will take place within the next six months, it is anticipated that the first wave of applications will come in early to mid 2009. The fees involved for a company to become a registry can be as high as $100,000, an amount that, according to ICANN, can be justified in the effort to prevent cybersquatters and other individuals who might wish to abuse domain name registrations from becoming part of this new scheme.

There you have it dear bloggers. Just when you thought that we would not really have to deal again with ICANN, the corporation is in the eye of the storm. First of all, once again ICANN is getting involved in decision-making processes, irrespective of its mandate as a technical organisation. This is old news. However, this time the decision of the Board to allow individuals to register new gTLDs will have serious implications that no one can really forsee. The new scheme opposes the traditional, territorial nature of trademark law and will automatically create an international 'Treaty' regime, something that has consciously been avoided in the past. It will allow trademark owners and especially the ones who hold 'strong' trademarks to automatically acquire international protection over their marks without the necessity of following the long-standing rules of the Paris Convention.

At the same time, if Mrs. Valente's comment proves to be correct, the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) will most likely act as the dispute resolution provider that will evaluate the applications (it is afterall the main body with experience in IP). WIPO is an UN-body assigned the task to promote intellectual property issues - so once again domain name holders will found themselves trapped in the interests of trademark owners and their constituencies.

Finally, such a decision will also re-shape the face of trademark law. First of all, generic terms will be allowed to be registered as gTLD - something that is forbidden by trademark regimes. ICANN is no longer promoting the 'first-come, first served' rule, which apart from its disadvantages, at least it was offering a certain amount of procedural justice. The new proposal seems to be promoting an elitistic model - whoever can afford $100,000 will end up having a gTLD.

The scheme has a lot of gaps as it does not answer the crucial question of what will happen in case two applications conerning identical or confusingly similar gTLD extensions come before these panels. Which criteria will then be used for choosing who should become the registry?

These issues open Pandora's Box and create a series of affairs that will certainly have implications upon all users, small and medium sized enterprises as well as entrepreneurs and start-up business ventures. The addressing system is encouraging the creation of an "exclusive club" that seems to be securing and protecting only certain interests.

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