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Magazines > Online > May/June 2003
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Online Magazine
Vol. 27 No. 3 — May/June 2003
FEATURE
WHO WAS, WHOIS, AND WHO WILL BE: Domain Name Ownership Research Tools
By Mark Goldstein

Brands and organizational identities have traditionally been defined and protected by copyright and trademark registration as well as their common public use. In cyberspace, domain names have become the real deeds to your virtual real estate and carry significant implications for the modern enterprise and individual.

The Domain Name System (DNS), a distributed Internet directory service, thankfully moved from the original arcane numbering scheme for determining Web host locations (IP addresses) to the more readable and memorable Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) when graphic interfaces took hold and the number of Internet users exploded. Under DNS, there are the common Generic Top Level Domains (gTLDs), such as .com, .net, and .org, as well as more specialized and restricted Special Top Level Domains (sTLDs) like .edu, .gov, and .mil. There are also over 100 two-character Country Code Top Level Domains (ccTLDs) and their hundreds of subdomains from around the world.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) [www.icann.org/] was formed to assume responsibility for IP address space allocation and protocol parameter assignment, as well as the Domain Name System (DNS) and root server system management functions. ICANN develops and authorizes new TLDs with various partners, such as the recently added gTLDs .aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name, and .pro, and is considering a host of proposals to activate additional gTLDs. In addition, various host countries grant agreements to registrars to represent and perhaps manage specific domain extensions and subdomains or country code TLDs. For example, VeriSign Global Registry Services [www.verisign-grs.com/] maintains the definitive directory of some 30 million dot-com and dot-net domain name Web addresses and propagates this information from its root server throughout the Internet. It also responds to billions of DNS look-ups daily. The ICANN site lists accredited registrars [www.icann.org/registrars/accredited-list.html], while a complete list of ccTLD registrars and contact info can be found on the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) site [www.iana.org/cctld/cctld-whois.htm].

DOMAIN NAME RIGHTS AND WRONGS

Like vanity 800 telephone numbers before them, there was a land rush for domain names throughout the 1990s as the popularity of the Internet swelled and enterprises awoke to their need to acquire, manage, and protect a new intellectual property asset. Today, there are well over 1,000 known domain extensions and subdomains, as well as close to 400 "official" registration services (not including unaccredited hosting companies and other third-party providers of domain name registration services).

Some country codes have taken on new meanings, such as Armenia (.am), the Federated States of Micronesia (.fm), and Tuvalu (.tv) which have become hot media domain name extensions for radio and television stations, as has Samoa (.ws) for general Web sites. Through strategic partners, domain names with these and other country codes are made available, yielding a significant income stream to the host country and increasing the opportunities for creative domain names-manship and possible name contention for us all.

Although there can be 42 classes of use and thus many similar names and owners based on a trademark, such as Kraft, in U.S. trademark practice, there can be only one kraft.com in the prime and still most valuable gTLD of cyberspace. Many disputes have arisen over names taken legitimately for an appropriate purpose, but to the vexation of another party, and with those names considered to be cybersquatting or a variety of other potentially infringing or exploitative practices, as documented in a variety of locations across the Web, including the comprehensive and at times provocative Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) archive [www.eff.org/IP/Internet_address_disputes/].

ARBITRATION AND MEDIATION

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) [www.wipo.org/] based in Geneva, Switzerland plays an important role, as its Arbitration and Mediation Center [http://arbiter.wipo.int/center/] offers a popular Domain Name Dispute Resolution Service [http://arbiter.wipo.int/domains/] to determine the outcome of just such international commercial disputes. Its Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) guides the procedures in filing and responding to UDRP complaints and can provide a ready remedy against the bad faith, abusive registration of domain names that violate trademark rights. Its track record as adjudicator is viewed by many as too strongly favoring the complainants, who are usually the trademark holders.

As for me, I've performed a substantial amount of research supporting investigations and legal claims for a number of major companies and brand properties, acquired and managed several hundred domain names myself, selling a few along the way, and successfully defended a UDRP claim brought by Micron Technology regarding one of my names, CrucialTechnology.com, at WIPO. It can be quite interesting and illuminating to browse or search past WIPO Cases and Panel Decisions [http://arbiter.wipo.int/domains/search/]. There are also civil remedies available, though less frequently utilized for a variety of reasons, under the U.S. Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) of 1999, an extension of U.S. trademark law.

WHOIS ON FIRST, WHAT'S ON SECOND

Most enterprises find they need to track existing and new domain names occasionally or even frequently for a variety of reasons, including keeping tabs on names currently held as well as checking for similar and possibly infringing names or other names of interest. This may be to protect brand equity and intellectual property assets, to develop new brand identities and trade names, or possibly to track the competition. You may just need to check and see if a particular name is available or delve more deeply into similar names that may be in use, uncovering who owns what, since when, and other relevant facts. Unfortunately, due to widely differing registration procedures, registrar capabilities, and technical shortcomings, as well as sometimes restrictive access policies for the national registries, the dynamic nature of the World Wide Web, and the Domain Name System itself, you cannot currently guarantee a high level of completeness and accuracy based on your findings.

Registrants may be further obscured by third parties who represent them, having opted out from displaying contact information, or deliberately using multiple or erroneous identities. However, a new class of intermediary or domain name data aggregator is arising that collects simple zone or "thin" records and integrates the data with full or "thick" record sets obtained from many individual registrars, in turn licensing the resultant data set to commercial search services with enhanced access capabilities and market reach. Total Domain Name Group offers its own domain name investigative services and further licenses its source file to both Questel•Orbit and Thomson & Thomson, while SnapNames.com [www.snapnames.com] provides its source file to Dialog.

FREE WHOIS LOOKUPS

Network Solutions [www.networksolutions.com/cgi-bin/whois/whois], a VeriSign company and the foundational registrar for dot-com and dot-net, offers a simple WhoIs query function that may be sufficient, though it's limited to searching by the exact domain name (including one of 14 specific searchable TLD extensions) or by NIC handle, customarily the owner's initials followed by a number. The NIC handle can be used as a coarse tool to reveal multiple domain name ownership across a single registrar, but any individual or enterprise may well have multiple NIC handles on the same registrar and very likely has utilized different registrars at different times.

Network Solutions' largest competitor, Register.com [www.register.com/], provides a WhoIs search function on most of its pages that will check a domain name with or without specifying the extension simultaneously across a range of popular extensions and a few dozen country codes, additionally suggesting some available name variants in case your searched name is taken. Sites like Allwhois.com [www.allwhois.com/], BetterWhois.com [www.betterwhois.com/], TrueWhois [www.truewhois.com/], Whois Source [www.whois.sc/], and WhoIsQuery.com [www.whoisquery.com/] can prove useful as each accesses various registrars' WhoIs databases, including many country domain registrars, have a variety of unique search capabilities (and quirks), and can at times provide a more complete and accurate response for exact matches of partial or full domain names.

AMNESI [www.amnesi.com/] offers a fuzzy search to reveal a range of similar names, useful for identifying misspelled or similar versions of a name. Whois.net [www.whois.net/] can search a database of deleted names using your name fragments, which can be useful in discovering what someone else thought was a worthwhile name previously but which has again become available. A site like NameBoy [www.nameboy.com/] goes farther than most in taking one or two keywords of input and generating lists of possible variants for your consideration, which is useful in branding and brainstorming. In addition, there are free automated monitoring services like NameProtect.com's [www.nameprotect.com/] NameGuard and SnapNames.com's SnapShot, as well as commercial versions such as Total Domain Name Group's CheckmarkNetwork.com [www.checkmarknetwork.com/].

QUESTEL•ORBIT'S TRADEMARK EXPLORER

For subscribers of Questel•Orbit [www.questel.orbit.com/], its Trademark Explorer [www.trademarkexplorer.questel.orbit.com/] now offers WhoIs style Domain Names Search capabilities to complement its traditional international trademark database strength. It is certainly more suited to enterprise applications than using public WhoIs functions. It covers a broad range of extensions accessible through a basic search page, with some advanced search capabilities and flexible selecting and reporting options. One can only search by variants of the domain name itself, not by owner (registrant) or other characteristics or data elements.

The availability of wildcard characters ("?" for a single character and "•" for multiple characters) lets you extend beyond identical name searches by adding prefixes, suffixes, and embedded target names or name fragments. Thus the search term "•bud•w?iser•" will find all domain names in the database that contain the word Budweiser and a range of intentional misspellings such as Budwiser and Budwiiser, though using something like "•bud•w•r•" would cast a broader net. However, the shorter and more common the word or word fragment you use with these tools, the more false hits you are likely to encounter, sometimes to the point of excess, often becoming unworkable. We'll use several variants of the Budweiser name in our domain name search benchmarks across four different systems.

Trademark Explorer offers convenient check boxes, allowing you to limit the range of domain extensions covered by Trademark Groups (European Union and NAFTA), Geographic Groups (Americas, Asia, and Europe), or Other Groups such as gTLDs and Global Top 50 Countries. You can also choose to exclude gTLDs from your results or add specific TLDs to the group selections. The system will automatically search not only on primary TLD levels (.com and .net), but on secondary levels (.com.fr and co.uk) as well.

Results are displayed in a list format from which you can view the "Who Is" information for any or all of the hits. The "Who Is" feature is supplemented by site information on the domain and a direct link to the site itself. Results can be selected in whole or in part for various downloads or report output options, with or without record details. There is no cost for executing a search, but Questel•Orbit charges $0.20 per result viewed, or a flat annual fee of $2,000 for unlimited searches, including weekly alerts. Certainly, Trademark Explorer is a better WhoIs, all things considered, especially if you're already using Questel•Orbit.

THOMSON & THOMSON'S SAEGIS

Thomson & Thomson [www.thomson-thomson.com/] provides its subscribers with a suite of online trademark screening capabilities known collectively as SAEGIS [www.saegis.com/]. In recent years, T&T has begun to complement its core TRADEMARKSCAN search capabilities with new Internet tools, including its Worldwide Domain Name Search and Domain Registrant Search functions. The Worldwide Domain Name database on SAEGIS contains information from approximately 200 domain name registries, including all ICANN accredited registries (.com, .net, .org, .edu, .gov, .biz, and .info), and several dozen national top level domain names from country code registrars.

The Worldwide Domain Name Search screen permits exact domain name searching, as well as plurals or the use of a name or name fragments with wildcard and Boolean query constructs. Selecting the phonetic domain name option can be quite useful in extending the search across similar names incorporating with typos, dashes, or other sundry linguistic devices. Even when selecting Exact Domain Name and disabling plurals, SAEGIS insists on including hits with embedded "-" characters, driving up the counts slightly for some searches. The default is to search all available gTLDs and ccTLDs.

Use the Select Database screen to choose or deselect gTLDs, creating a custom group, or populating the available search field for TLDs to filter on specific extensions. For fine-tuning your ccTLD search coverage, choose one or more geographic regions or, by selecting and deselecting a set of region, single, or multiple country selections. However, individual country choices are only presented for the top 20 countries or so and other countries must be selected or deselected along with their regional neighbors as groups. The total Hit Count is displayed along with subtotals for gTLD and ccTLD hits and can be viewed in groups of from 10 to 100 from each category on screen or designated for further processing for $.25 each.

The Domain Registrant Search allows for searching by registrant name as well as contact information. The Total Domain Name Group source data is augmented by T&T's own arrangements to obtain and integrate "thick" record data from five top-tier gTLD registrars: CORE, Melbourne IT, Network Solutions Inc., Register.com, and Tucows. Ownership for gTLDs recorded at other registrars and any ccTLDs will not be unveiled this way, but over 13 million records are included. The total Hit Count is displayed, along with subtotals for each registrar, and the records can be viewed in groups of from 10 to 100 for $1 each. Results from either type of query can be filtered, designated, and prepped for downloading or report generation.

SAEGIS's gTLD file is updated daily, with new and modified records from all ICANN-accredited registrars, while the update frequency for ccTLDs will vary, sometimes significantly, by registrar and a variety of other factors. Interestingly, T&T chooses to omit the dot-cc and dot-tv TLDs due to their commercial orientation and specifies another nine ccTLDs that are no longer updated but may have some historical records present. The domain name and registrant search capabilities are a welcome addition to the SAEGIS trademark-oriented suite, but unfortunately aren't supported by the normal Electronic Watch functions to generate periodic alerts and may only be manually searched. One additional Internet tool now provided is SiteComber Search for checking the Web for common law occurrences of a target name.

MICROPATENT'S TRADEMARK.COM

MicroPatent [www.micropatent.com/] has offered Trademark.com [www.trademark.com/] for some time, which is primarily intended for the searching of worldwide trademark holdings. It now includes subscription and transactional access to its Domain Name Database containing all dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org TLD names via the same portal and query screen. Though it does not yet have the international ccTLDs, the majority of country codes should be publicly available shortly through Total Domain Name Group, which also sources T&T's SAEGIS. I tested the extended set of gTLDs and ccTLDs.

The general search form allows you to construct a complex query executed across multiple trademark and domain name databases, including specifying domain names, owner, dates, and more. NearXact can be applied to limit your search. Unfortunately, the phonetic option to expand on it can't be applied to domain name searches. The results can be selected, filtered, and formatted for HTML or PDF output and post-processing. However, the system by design is unable to process and return results for queries yielding over 20,000 hits. BrandTracker Worldwide Domain Name Watch can perform similar cross-file queries, including international ccTLDs weekly, and deliver the results for monitoring purposes for $495/year.

For interactive searching, Trademark.com offers four packages to choose from, the top two of which include access to the Domain Name capabilities. The Gold level also offers searching of U.S. Federal, State, and Common Law Trademarks, as well as Canadian Trademarks. The Platinum level adds some International Trademarks (WIPO, EC, & U.K.). Though annual subscriptions are available for unlimited access by negotiation, by far the most interesting pricing option is the 12 Hour Research Session, which costs $85 for the Gold level and $100 for the Platinum level, if you need the extra international trademark coverage. Previously available monthly subscription options have been discontinued based on actual customer use patterns. However, the single workday option allows the occasional user to conduct up to 12 contiguous hours of trademark and domain name research at an affordable and predictable price, which is a particularly well-suited option for project-based or occasional needs. Trademark.com indicates that there will likely be some as yet undecided surcharge for adding international ccTLDs to your search session when available.

DIALOG'S DOMAIN NAMES DATABASE

This past November, Dialog [www.dialog.com] introduced File 225, the Domain Names Database, with content licensed from SnapNames.com. This new offering has changed the equation for online domain name research, with its in-depth gTLD and growing ccTLD coverage, full indexing and search capabilities, as well as archival WhoWas data tracking of changes in ownership and other major elements over time.

When introduced, File 225 included information on all available, expired, and registered dot-com, dot-net, and dot-org gTLDs holding at least a basic zone or "thin" record for each. Earlier this year Dialog added complete dot-biz and dot-info records, as well as partial data for dot-coop, dot-edu, and most top-level ccTLDs. Through SnapNames, Dialog is moving aggressively to formalize relations with a large number of top registrars to obtain their fuller data directly for integrating with the complete, but "thin" zone records. Dialog likely has the most extensive set of complete or "thick" records for the three prime gTLD extensions. However, still missing are some other important gTLDs and subdomain international ccTLDs, though this will likely be resolved by the time you are reading this article.

There are already some 80 million WhoIs and WhoWas records for just the top three domain extensions, making this the largest file by far on Dialog. In fact, the system can't currently complete single queries yielding sets with several tens of thousands of hits or more, though Dialog offers a workaround and will soon fix the core technical problem. The addition of other gTLDs and ccTLDs, as well as the ongoing accumulation of WhoWas snapshots of moments in domain name history since October 1997, could drive this file to hundreds of millions of records before long.

The Blue Sheet [http://library.dialog.com/bluesheets/html/bl0225.html] defines some 78 basic and additional indexed fields, more than 50 of which are searchable through Boolean queries and search screens. You can search not only by domain name and registrant name, but also by many potentially useful and unique search fields such as administrative, billing, and technical contacts including the associated e-mail addresses, phone numbers, and ZIP codes, as well as the domain name creation date, expiration date, assigned name servers, current registrar, and status.

You can MAP search results to different databases, as well as utilize the familiar Dialog SORT, RANK, and REPORT commands, allowing for unique extractions, analysis, and presentation beyond the other domain name search systems reviewed here. You can limit your result sets to WhoIs records for current ownership information or WhoWas records for historical purposes, as well as to whether records have thin or thick data available. However, Dialog doesn't seem to provide any simple search mechanism that allows you to limit by exact name match across a range of TLDs, although EXPAND can be utilized manually with modest-sized sets.

Unlike the other three search systems profiled, there is no simple index field or switch setting to conveniently separate gTLD from ccTLD results or to establish geographically defined groupings. Sets can be limited by individual or groups of specific TLDs. The file is included in the Trademark OneSearch categories utilizing the same "rotated" trade names capabilities and can be accessed through DialogClassic, DialogWeb, Dialog1, and even by credit card at Dialog Open Access.

Dialog generally charges $5.50 per DialUnit or $1.08 per minute of connect time plus per-record fees to view or print from File 225. Full WhoIs records cost $2 each, while the unique historical WhoWas records cost somewhat more, at $2.90 each. Report elements are priced at $.40 each. Alerts can be developed and scheduled monthly or at other intervals for $20 each, allowing for brand asset and trade name protection or competitive monitoring purposes. For some searching scenarios, especially those yielding lots of hits that need to be reviewed, Dialog may well end up significantly more expensive than other options, though its data depth and its unique and extensive searching capabilities may prove compelling and unavoidable for your search tasks. The file is currently updated monthly, though that time frame is likely moving to weekly.

SnapNames.com has put a lot of thought and effort into standardizing the diverse record formats provided by the various contributing registrars, and Dialog has successfully brought domain name searching into a full database format and with extended query capabilities. This, combined with improving TLD coverage, the unique availability of historical data, and a greater percentage of "thick" records, yields a great new research source, and as more gTLDs and ccTLDs are added, a formidable player in the domain name search arena.

OPPORTUNITIES AND OPTIONS

Reasons for researching domain names range from the simple, "Is this name available?" to the complex, "Who owns this name now, who used to own it in the past, and what additional names do these individuals or companies own now?" The range of rationales for doing domain name searches is matched by the range of products. For simple curiosity about a name, most of the free services will suffice. When it comes to cybersquatting, spoof names, trademark defenses, and legal actions, one of the fee-based services will be necessary. Which one you choose will be determined by a mix of search functionality, TLD content coverage, and price.

 


Mark Goldstein [markg@researchedge.com or www.researchedge.com] is president of International Research Center, a research and strategic consulting services firm based in Phoenix, Arizona, serving industry, government, and non-profit clients primarily in telecommunications, information technology, e-content, Internet, biotechnology, and tech transfer arenas.

Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to marydee@xmission.com.


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