An Alarming New Twist on Intellectual Property Theft

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One Degree Editor-in-Chief Kate Trgovac asked me to comment on the recent furor in the domain name industry surrounding the discovery that a major registrar, Network Solutions, was practicing what is referred to as domain name "front running." This article provides a good starting point to the whole scandal.

(Full disclosure, I work for Tucows, which, like Network Solutions, is one of the world’s largest domain name registrars.)

“Front running” refers to the dishonest (in my and most people’s opinion) practice of monitoring a person’s WHOIS lookups (searches for domain name availability) and then, soon after, secretly registering any of those domain names that are still available. It’s intellectual property theft, pure and simple. It’s also a blatant abuse of the domain name system, and it gives the industry a bad name.

Here’s what happens. Say you have an idea for a domain name. If you use Network Solutions to search for and register domain names, you would do a search for (say) “OneDegreeRocks.com”. If the domain name is available, but you choose not to register it that very moment, Network Solutions goes ahead and, in essence, registers OneDegreeRocks.com anyway. Then, if you or anyone wants to obtain that domain name, the only company the domain is available from for the next 5 days is … you guessed it … Network Solutions.

After 5 days, Network Solutions releases the name back into the open market, however by then the fact that the domain was ‘of interest’ to someone has been made public to anyone with the ability to mine the WHOIS database. Your ‘secret’ idea for a domain or company name is not so secret anymore…

Now that they have been confronted with this, Network Solutions have attempted to justify their behaviour by spinning what they are doing as protecting their customers from front running. The irony is that they are using front running to do this. (Note: As I write this, I have just learned that Network Solutions may have put a halt to this practice. Let’s hope so.)

In light of this new ‘development’ in the industry, my advice to One Degree readers is to be very careful where you do your WHOIS lookups. Make sure you are using the service of a registrar that is not going to be spying on your searches or obstructing your ability to choose where and when you can register a domain name. Here’s a useful blog post from Elliot Noss, Tucows President and CEO, on “Questions to Ask Before You Pick Your Domain Name Registrar.” It features a lot of useful information about how to evaluate potential registrars before you make a domain name purchase.

(And yes, for the record, Tucows does NOT engage in front running. We don’t use WHOIS query data or search data to front run domain names. You can trust our WHOIS and the domain lookup search boxes of our resellers.)

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5 thoughts on “An Alarming New Twist on Intellectual Property Theft

  1. miro slodki

    Thanks Bill
    its amazing that anyone with any substantial business base would even consider this kind of stuff
    be interesting to see how this echoes and plays out in the social media
    Miro

  2. Flippy

    Omigawd, I just thought Leigh-Ann & I were paranoid, that after we’d done searches for some domain ideas and they were taken shortly afterwards that it must’ve been a coincidence. That a company couldn’t possibly record our searches and steal our ideas. But they did. That sucks!

  3. Linda Lynch, Lynch Media & Associates

    A great article/post and a wake up call for sure.
    BUT although tucows may not engage in this horrendous practice I would gently point out that unless they stress to their army of resellers the importance of an immediate purchase when a domain name is requested then the myriad of name grabbing bot spies out there will beat the client to the name regardless of the tucows policies.
    In fact, every seller in their stable should be required to provide a domain name search box for .ca and all others and the ability to check the name and purchase on the spot. This is only going to get worse. Of course there should also be a severe penalty for the activities attributed to Network Sols and also those companies whose bots are running around stealing people’s ideas. Oh, I am not talking about fines and the like. We have seen how IT gov’t regs can go nowhere fast. In fact, it shouild come from ICANN and similar domestic, country type bodies like CIRA. Simple really, if you are caught engaging in this activity you are stripped by the Internet authority on domain names of your approval and license to register domain names.This is a situation where the industry needs to step up and use its own regulatory powers to stop this.
    Thanks for reading my thoughts. Happy New Year!
    Write, scream, yell to:
    Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)
    Marina del Rey, CA, USA
    4676 Admiralty Way, Suite 330
    Marina del Rey, CA 90292-6601
    USA
    Phone: +1.310.823.9358
    FAX: +1.310.823.8649
    Belgium
    6 Rond Point Schuman
    Bt. 5
    Brussels B-1040 Belgium
    Phone: +32 2 234 7870
    FAX: +32 2 234 7848
    Contact Form
    CIRA
    350 Sparks Street, Suite 1110
    Ottawa, Ontario, K1R 7S8
    Administration: (613) 237-5335
    Monday to Friday, 8:30 to 16:30 (Eastern)

  4. Ken Schafer

    Lydia,
    I commend your passion on the topic!
    One of my biggest concerns with Network Solutions “solution” is that it exaggerates the issue and raises distrust in the domain registration process. There are VERY few examples of names that people searched for that were registered immediately thereafter by a third-party. We’re urging Network Solutions to share information they might have about proven cases of front running. At Tucows we have yet to have a registrant or reseller approach us with a case of this “in the wild”.
    I’m not discounting that this CAN happen and does happen, only stating that it happens rarely.
    We charge our resellers a fee for deleting domains within the five day Add Grace Period to discourage “tasting” and “front-running” by making it economically unappealing. We’d like to see ICANN do this at a policy level so the problem goes away entirely.

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