What’s in a (Domain) Name?

Amber L. Leaders

In the history of time, or the Internet, one word has become the word to end all words.  It has reached the climax.  Hit the high note.  Gone the distance.  What is that giant of the Google search?  Sex.  That’s right, Sex.  It should come as no surprise to anyone that in the world of domain names, that simple three letter word is the world’s most expensive.  In a recent California bankruptcy case, Escom LLC named a winning bidder in its Sex.com sweepstakes.  Clover Holdings Ltd will be the new lucky owner of this valuable site, coming in with cool $13 million bid.   It’s a staggering sum.  To come close to matching it would take a treacherous  combination of porn(.com) and vodka(.com) or a tamer, but still entertaining, combo of slots(.com), toys(.com) and candy(.com) to be in the ballpark of the “sex” sale.

Such is the growth of the internet that simple and common words carry such high price tags.  Folks out to reach a wide audience and be tops in the search window will shell out exorbitant amounts for those precious little words.  Popular words like “internet,”  “computer” and “insure” have all sold for sums in the millions.  It’s an interesting commentary on what we value and what sells in today’s web world.  Our top selling websites are almost universally descriptions of our common  vices.   Over the past year some of the top sellers include: dating.com ($1.7 million), poker.org ($1 million), guns.com ($800,000),  IPO.com ($500,000) and  kredit.com ($270,000).  But the top 100 include some surprises as well: disco.com ($255,000), wicker.com ($230,000), pig.com ($125,000), dirt.com ($100,000) and the always popular schmuck.com ($65,000).

Taking a deeper look at popular domain name auction sites likes Sedo.com and Snapnames.com reveals our more intriguing, but less obvious, “vices.”

  • In a close one in the war on drugs, stopdrugs.com ($5000) beats out marijuanaparty.com ($3900).
  • Looking for some direction in the grim legal market (I know I am)?  Maybe consider a career in PI(personal injury)!  Asbestoslawyer.com ($12,500) and cigaretteslawyer.com ($10,000) easily beat out the less lucrative, but hopefully more fulfilling, other PI(public interest) sites lawandjusticenetwork.com ($3000), humanjustice.com ($588) and fightpoverty.org ($70, really? For shame.)
  • In a fine showing for a pacifists everywhere, peaceforall.com, peaceloving.com and forpeace.org all come in over $3000  while militants.com, nopeace.com and killthem.com don’t even break the $500 mark.
  • In sad news for the well-educated everywhere, schoolisforfools.com ($1588) edges businessgraduate.com ($1395), law-degree.com ($449) and engineeringgraduate.com ($788).  Though doctors still end up on top (medicaldegree.com $68,000).
  • Pugs.com comes in a whopping $10,099, but in a triumph of big over little GreatDanes.com trumps the little pug at $18,500.

All in all, it’s an interesting landscape in the domain names buying and selling game.  A landscape that reflects, to some degree, our greatest pursuits.  A landscape that is only going to grow more expensive as the web reaches further and further corners of the globe.  A landscape that honors the obvious and the obscure.  A landscape where the fool is king, where sex sells and where justice comes cheap.

But if that landscape sounds appealing and you have some dollars in your pocket, then keep in mind a couple important points.  First, what do you actually get when you buy a domain name?  Legal scholars debate whether buyers of domain names receive property or a service agreement or something in between.  For example, in Network Solutions, Inc. v. Umbro International, Inc., et al., the Supreme Court of Virgina recognized that domain names are unique and unlike trademark, but did not directly address whether domain names could be considered as  intangible property. In contrast, some tax experts argue domain names do constitute property.

The distinction is important for buyers in the case of litigation over the domain.  If the domain is property, property law applies; if the domain is a service agreement, contract law applies.  The other important point is that different domains carry different levels of restrictions. Domain names are generally owned by the person who registered the name with the registrar. But it is somewhat unclear whether this means the person ordered the domain name through the registrar, the person who paid consideration for the domain name, or the person whose contact information appears in the registry. One reading of the ICANN Registrar Accreditation Agreement Section 3.3 suggests the owner of a domain name is the party whose name and address is published as the Registered Name Holder.

Top-level domains such as .com and are unrestricted and open to all.  Generally speaking, there are no geographic or other registration restrictions these domains. Other top-level domains, such as .gov or  certain country-specific handles, can carry heavy restrictions and may limit who is allowed to register the domain. The country-specific domains are based on standardized abbreviations set by the International Standards Organization (ISO). The central governing body for top-level domains, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), has its principal offices in the United States, but the organization is international in scope.

Although the registration of generic top-level domain names is automated, many of the registries for country-specific domain names are not automated and may require detailed paperwork and compliance. Given all this complexity, prior to spending your pennies on a fancy new domain name, researching and understanding these issues is recommended.

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