Monday, January 06, 2003

The Last of the dot-com Big Spenders is Alive and Well, and Living in Burwood

As current or sometime owner of several domain names myself, I was interested to read and ponder the (belatedly-breaking) vs story:

With its main players being a Microsoft head office exec, a mysterious Melbourne-based interloper, and a prominent Australian political/corporate commentator-cum-gadfly, the “Crikey” domain name ownership dispute is of more interest than the familiar celebrity-takes-on-cybername-jacker stories.

Stephen Mayne, the said commentator-cum-gadfly, apparently registered the name in 1998 or 1999. The name chosen was a cleanskin one; apart from its general association with the Australian vernacular, the word had no prior commercial connotations. Conversely, Mayne has developed the website from scratch into a significant media outlet, certainly as far as independent media outlets in Australia go. The common law brand “Crikey” is thus rightly Mayne’s - in Australia, and wherever the website is read in the rest of the world, unless someone can show that they were a prior user of the name (very unlikely), or that there is no possibility of consumer confusion between Mayne’s and the subsequent “Crikey”.

Into this unambiguous statement of rights, comes the small irritant – the “mirror” domain name of a national suffix. There are ironies aplenty in the dual domain name game. The sparer suffix “” wins against the equivalent national suffix on almost all grounds, and most especially, price. Not only are names ludicrously expensive in comparison to their more elegant and memorable siblings, the high cost of the Australian national suffix (which also entails artificial business name-obtaining hoops) deters cybername speculators in the first place. Thus, apart from some vague sense of good old digging-deep patriotism, there is no commercial reason for an Australian concern to bother registering the national suffix “mirror” to their domain name. In the event of a customer choosing the wrong (.au) suffix, the resultant blank page, together with a modicum of customer common sense, will soon see them on their way.

That wins is on the proviso, of course, that the Australian outfit can register their domain name in the preferred, form. In Mayne’s case, Seattle-based Microsoft executive Mike Smith had earlier (1997) registered the name. For many Australian businesses, this was, at the time, a depressingly familiar scenario. Tens of millions of suffixes, most presumably randomly sourced from a dictionary, were acquired in the mid-to-late 1990’s, mainly by American speculators and hobbyists. While non-Americans were always free to join this mass name-grab, few seemed to have done so with any enthusiasm. For Australians contemplating domain name speculation, the downsides would have been the low Australian dollar (making the playing field quite unlevel), and probably also a gut feeling – quite right, as it turned out – that the speculation would almost always be in vain, ultimately. Since 2001, millions of suffixes have fallen available, through not being renewed. For most brand-new Australian businesses then, the domain name game may be looking up.

For many of those established a few years, however, the decision they made to go with a national suffix – with the full-knowledge that the “mirror” name was already taken, most likely by a speculator, will be a cause for regret. Perversely, a likely reason that many American speculators would have renewed a domain name in the last two years is the chance to, after having trawled the national suffix databases and found a “mirror” match, become a sort of cyber-squatter in retrospect (and so in a legally sanctioned way).

The risks here (and worst-case buy-out costs) for Australian businesses can be overstated. With the benefit of hindsight, Stephen Mayne, was particularly vulnerable to a malignant form of retrospective cyber-squatting because of the investigative and linen-airing nature of his website. With it being fair to assume that Mayne has a few enemies, who are also quite possibly cashed-up, it is credible – if also very troubling – that one or more of these has coughed up what is possibly a record amount, post-2001, to take over a name ($US 7,500). Any ordinary American speculator would have been chuffed with far less, I suspect.

Whoever he/she/they are, they have taken some care to not identify themselves, with the “Who Is” records showing that the proud new owner of (paid up to 2006) is Martin Hallier of 19 Main Street, Burwood, Victoria 3125; phone +61-3-9555-2002; email There is no such street, and the phone number operates as a redirect to a stranger’s phone.

Moral of the story?

While nothing may unite disparate people more than having a common enemy, Microsoft may be more than just a hated leviathan, the proverbial brick wall. Small, throwaway gestures are sometimes the way one enemy communicates to, does business with another.
The more discrete the scale of such a gesture, however, the bigger may be the ultimate public impact and stench.

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