Well, after more than a year of trying to convince the owner of writingmaterial.com to sell me the domain name, I’ve officially given up. At first, this person wanted several thousand dollars, and once I made it clear I would only ever use it as an address for a Rhetoric and Composition blog about the history and future of writing and book technologies, he/she declined to even communicate about it. Okay, that’s fine, … I guess.
Maybe it’s for the best. I had to look for a different domain name. One that I could afford. After a couple of hours of looking, I settled upon “digitalbibliography.com” For the low price of $14.95 per year, until I choose to relinquish the rights, I’m the proud owner of this sweet domain name. It’s actually more precise in describing the contents of this blog, but I don’t like the sound of it nearly as much.
But there’s something that really bothers me about this whole situation. I’m not a scholar of intellectual property or copyright law, so my logic is merely at coffee-shop talk. I’m really sort of pissed off about the way domain names are purchased, marketed, and resold as commodities. There are so many metaphors that people introduce into this discussion.
Real Estate. A domain name is an address. Yes, but not to an actual location. Maybe it depends on how it’s framed. There seems to be some relationship here between the words that would be most appropriate or effective for a given site/organization/business/person. For instance, the two words most obvious to my indefinite internet presence would be “Trauman” and “Ryan.” Thus, ryantrauman.com is about the best case scenario for my domain possibilities. I don’t know if there are any other Ryan Traumans out there (I really don’t think there are), but if there were, they’d be stuck with options significantly less useful than ryantrauman.com, as I’ve already secured it. It has the most “value.” They’d be stuck with ryan-trauman.com or something similar. Not ideal. Less valuable. There are domains that would be better than others in lieu of the actual ryantrauman.com. In this sense, there is sort of a real estate metaphor at work. The situation is only intensified, financially, when it’s a business name at issue instead of a person’s name.
This all makes sense to me. But what irks me is that a person or business doesn’t need to make any claim to a name in order to buy it. I think, though, that there’s some way to sue for the right to a domain name. Say for instance someone registered the domain microsoft.com, but had no relationship to the company. I think Microsoft could sue for the right to purchase it. Or maybe even just sue for the rights outright. And this, too, seems like a good move.
But what annoys me is that I wanted to register the name trauman.com, but I couldn’t convince a domain name clearinghouse to sell it to me for less than several thousand dollars. They’d never used it, and they had no plans to. And they had tens of thousands of names in their possession. I could have sued them, but they’re not in the U.S. so it would have been prohibitively expensive. And even if they’d have been in the U.S. it still would have cost me tens of thousands of dollars.
These companies can buy up these names for a few dollars a piece. And then sit on them. Why? What good does this do the world?
People call it an investment. When it comes to personal domain names like mine, it’s more akin to kidnapping and ransom than it is to speculative investment.
I know that most of the problems I’m articulating here are more about problems of scale and international regulation than they are about fairness. How expensive would names be if someone had to verify someone’s claim to them? What would constitute a viable claim? Why should one Steve Anderson get the domain name over another Steve Anderson? And maybe more basically, what harm does all this really do to the world?
Plenty. I was lucky. I was able to snag my own name. But I have friends whose name sits somewhere in some database, only to be sold for several thousands of dollars (dozens of thousands in some cases!). If the domain has any value to begin with, and I doubt anyone would argue that they don’t, then that’s value destroyed for the sake of speculation. But that’s speculation with no value added to the risk someone takes. Take the domain name ScholarshipCentral.com for instance. A company snatches up this name, and will sell it only for $20,000. If they don’t sell it, they’ll never use it themselves. The last thing in the world they want to do is develop a website about scholarship information. So it sits there unused. Or maybe someone who IS interested in developing a website like this, or whose company has actually been called Scholarship Central for the last twenty years, decides that they really need to buy that domain name. The original registrar of the domain has added absolutely nothing to the name and provided no service whatsoever to the new owner. And the new owner’s business is either $20,000 lighter or has to deal with that much more debt. What an awful situation. (The actual owner of ScholarshipCentral.com is actually a company called “InNetWeTrust.com – This Web Site For Sale, Inc.” and the actual asking price for the domain? $51,800. Yeah, I double checked the zeroes.)
So should this be criminal? I wish it were, but obviously the scale of the problem (how many word combinations and weird spellings can we think of?) makes that impractical. I really don’t think there’s anything anyone can do about it.
It feels like ransom or piracy or telemarketers. Each of those analogies is significantly problematic, I know, but what they have in common is that they each aggressively seek out property that has value to other people but no value to themselves. Then they acquire that property for the sole purpose of selling it back to people who have some stake in it. And nothing good—at all—comes from this.
Venting? Yep, sure. But it’s important. It should be important to us all. Suddenly curious about Steinbeck’s masterpiece? Try visiting http://www.grapesofwrath.net/. Nothing there but an ugly-ass billboard. And a phone number to a salesperson.
This IS about texts. This IS about intellectual property. This IS about our culture. And there IS something at stake. The trouble is, I think we’ve already lost it.