It is not a secret that I have been (and I continue to be) against the requests made to ICANN by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Red Cross for special protection of their names and their variations. I am mainly against because of the problems associated with these types of protection, the potential implications they may have and the fact that any attempt to reserve any names in the Domain Name Space will set a very bad precedent that will be detrimental to the whole new gTLDs experience. Well, the effect of this precedent is right upon us and, once again, ICANN is faced with a big challenge to find ways to accommodate the similar demands of intergovernmental organizations in the new gTLDs space. But, let’s take things from the beginning.
For quite some time now, ICANN has been subjected to a huge amount of pressure by IOC and the Red Cross to protect their names in the new gTLD program. This request, which was also vehemently supported by ICANN’s Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), was meant to ensure that all the names associated with these two organizations (OLYMPIC, OLYMPIAD, RED CROSS, RED CRESCENT, etc.) are reserved under both the top level and second level domain names. As it normally goes, the justification is that these organizations constitute targets of cybersquatting activities, their non-profit nature (a point which is questionable given their involvement in multi-billion dollar licensing deals) does not allow them to spend money defending their brands as other purely commercial entities do and, in any case, such organizations should receive special treatment especially since Treaties and international commitments provide them with presumed privileges that could justify such levels of protection. Seeking a solution to this issue and given the pressure inflicted upon it, the ICANN Board agreed to initiate a process between the GNSO and the GAC on finding ways to address this issue; in the meantime, IOC’s and the Red Cross’s requests were accommodated – at least partially, as ICANN has committed to reserve their names in the new gTLD space but only for the top level domain names, stating, “the extraordinary step of blocking the requested names at the second level should not be taken as it would deny those with a legitimate interest or rights in registering those names at the second level, e.g., olympic.taxis and redcross.salt.”
I still think that this compromise is problematic and it is not because I don’t believe in the mission of these organizations or what they stand for. My problem is that these organizations are misusing trademark law and international Treaties to receive unprecedented levels of protection, especially when their names (in the case of ‘Olympic’ at least) conflict with other recognized rights, associated with traditional knowledge as well as cultural and geographical identifications. But, ultimately, it is the very dangerous precedent that such policy compensations set.
A recent letter from a number of Intergovernmental Organizations “on the Expansion of Generic Top Level Domains” to ICANN is a case in point. Based on the justifications used by the Red Cross and the IOC, several intergovernmental organizations are requesting ICANN to afford them the same privileges as these two organizations. So, if with IOC and the Red Cross we were stuck between a rock and a hard place, now we are in real trouble. The problem is simple - the argument that all these organizations should be afforded special protection, despite the very valuable work they are doing, is weak and flawed. In the letter, the organizations state that measures to protect their names can “find support in international legal norms”, citing Article 6ter of the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, Article 16 of the Trademark Law Treaty and Article 2 of the WTO Agreement on Trademark Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.
It is indeed the case that all these statutes mainly reflect the need for the protection of these organizations; but they are equally being referenced quite widely. In particular, Article 6ter, para. 1(a) states: (a) The countries of the Union agree to refuse or to invalidate the registration, and to prohibit by appropriate measures the use, without authorization by the competent authorities, either as trademarks or as elements of trademarks [emphasis added], of armorial bearings, flags, and other State emblems, of the countries of the Union, official signs and hallmarks indicating control and warranty adopted by them, and any imitation from a heraldic point of view. And, para. 1(c) states: “The countries of the Union shall not be required to apply the said provisions when the use or registration referred to in subparagraph (a), above, is not of such a nature as to suggest to the public that a connection exists between the organization concerned and the armorial bearings, flags, emblems, abbreviations, and names, or if such use or registration is probably not of such a nature as to mislead the public as to the existence of a connection between the user and the organization [emphasis added].” So, here we have provisions that commit to protect the names, abbreviations, flags, etc. of such organizations, but only in relation to trademarks. Neither of these statutes seeks to create or is willing to acknowledge special privileges like the ones being requested from ICANN.
But, the bigger picture here is the position that such pressures place ICANN. ICANN is not a trademark entity and was not created to confirm, amend or re-write trademark law. And, this is essentially what is being asked from ICANN - to interpret old Treaties into the realm of the Internet and, to do so, in a fashion that is not compatible with its governance structure. This is problematic.
It really took ICANN a lot of time to become a body that was not purely seen as a front for trademarks and their protection. The history of the organization is replete with examples of how the trademark lobby has used ICANN as the platform for many expansive policies. But, lately things have changed. For instance, the fact that ICANN resisted the adoption of the Globally Protected Marks List (GPML) is a credit to the organization, since its adoption would place ICANN as the new legislator of trademark law. The fact that such listed never existed and was requested by ICANN to do so is a clear indication of why ICANN should resist meddling with trademarks.
The current requests by all these organizations are not that far away from the GPML idea; they may not be asking ICANN to create something new or novel, but they are asking ICANN to interpret international law instruments and translate them into DNS language. This is not ICANN’s job and ICANN should refrain from engaging in such dialectic. Imagine, for instance, if the World Health Organization were to reserve its abbreviation ‘WHO’. With many existing entities making legitimate use of the word ‘WHO’, it would be contrary to existing trademark law for only one entity to use it. (Examples include the music band ‘The WHO’, ‘Doctor Who’, the biographical encyclopaedia ‘Who’s Who’, etc.). If ICANN complies with this request and continues to grant these privileges, it exposes itself to all sorts of problems. It is time we reconsider the way trademarks fit within the domain name space.