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The Fight for Control of the .music Domain, and Why It Matters

Don't Tread on the Internet
Mario Tama, Getty Images

A few years ago, ICANN, the little-known non-profit corporation that runs the internet, significantly expanded the number of top-level domains. Top-level domains are the highest part of the web domain hierarchy — they’re the –.com, –.net and –.org part of web addresses.

Smaller top-level domains are nothing new. My favorite website of all time, cashcats.biz, uses a TLD released in 2001. And lots of above-board sites use TLDs like .info and .fm (including, of course, the website you’re reading right now).

But starting in 2011, and progressing every few years, ICANN made many more top-level domains available. And it’s this development to thank for weird, mostly-unused top-level domains like .dentist, .sex and .tennis.

You don’t see many of those new top-level domains in your day-to-day internetting because, frankly, they’re sort of useless. Especially the newer, crazier ones — they’re often the domain (snort) of squatters and shady brokers. They play host to piracy sites, like Grooveshark.io. Sometimes, entire top-level domains are a racket in and of themselves. Browsers just go ahead and block the crazier ones — the .christmases and .spreadbettings of the world — as spam. As far as I can tell, Honda doesn’t even own honda.honda.

"Everyday internet users who might want a .music domain — bands, record stores, local venues — could actually have the first shot at buying it instead of competing with brokers."

But .music, one of the next top-level domains to be released, could be different in at least a couple compelling ways. Everyday internet users who might want a .music domain — bands, record stores, local venues — could actually have the first shot at buying it instead of competing with brokers. Sketchy pirate sites wouldn’t be able to set up shop on .music domains; clandestine entities wouldn’t be able to buy up domains and park them, with no intention of doing anything with them.

The CEO of the company that wants to make all this happen even thinks it could unite Sony Music, Madonna, your buddy’s band and your neighborhood record store under a single banner, creating a kind of community — the way .edu does for academic institutions — making .com, at least where the music world is concerned, a thing of the past.

But whether or not it will happen is still very much an open question. The company leading this charge, DotMusic Limited, has the entire music industry on its side, including the RIAA and the IFPI, which represent the national and global recording industries, respectively; the Recording Academy, which awards the Grammys; and the huge rights organizations ASCAP and BMI.

They’re also supported by IFACCA, which represents arts councils across the world, including the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the International Federation of Musicians, the global alliance of musicians’ unions, including musicians in the U.S. One hundred and eighteen separate organizations have endorsed DotMusic. They say they represent over 95 percent of music consumed in the world.

But before DotMusic can take over the rights to the .music domain, they have to have an application approved by ICANN. They submitted that application — along with a $185,000 application fee — all the way back in 2012. As part of ICANN’s process, the corporation considers community-focused proposals first.

If DotMusic’s application isn’t approved by ICANN, the domain goes up for auction, where Google, Amazon and a number of other entities who applied as non-community applicants will compete to sell .music on the free market, wild west-style, like those other top-level domains. We’ve reached out to Google and Amazon to ask about their plans for the TLD and haven’t heard back yet. Google previously purchased .app for $25 million, and Amazon bought .buy and .spot for $5 million and $2.2 million respectively, but so far, it doesn’t appear either company has made any significant use of them.

The founder and CEO of DotMusic is a Cypriot musician and businessman named Constantine Roussos. Roussos is a talkative guy who enjoys unspooling the details of his bid. He’s often pictured with a shaggy Beatles haircut and a trimmed soul patch, wearing a black “.music” T-shirt.

He says he made .music a personal crusade when, 10 years ago, Facebook led him to an epiphany.

When Facebook first started out, only users with a .edu email address were allowed to sign up: “[They] started using the .edu email address to validate students, to make them legitimate. To make them part of the network. That’s when it clicked — I thought, ‘That’s brilliant. You’re organizing the most legitimate community, which is universities — they’re like a clan.’

“The genius of Zuckerberg for me was figuring out how to beat MySpace on the trust factor,” he goes on. “[On MySpace], there’s 100 Paris Hilton profiles. They’re all fake. People are pretending to be someone they’re not, you know? Then you’ve got this Facebook idea, which was exactly the opposite — it’s kind of its own little club, only for students. I thought that was brilliant. And .edu — just the mere fact that only [academic] institutions could have a .edu address — was the way to weed the fakers from the true students.”

Roussos says he wanted to create something similar for the music world — a cleaned-up internet community, free of pirates, squatters, and swindlers.

David Lowery, who founded the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, has been outspoken about the .music issue — he’s concerned primarily with smaller artists struggling to secure the domains they need.

“A lot of musicians worry that we’d essentially have to buy our .music [domains] from a third party who is going to charge too much for it — who doesn’t have the right to it. And we’d have to go through an expensive intellectual property trademark procedure to get our .music,” says Lowery, who is knowledgeable and outspoken about the music industry, and even lectures at the University of Georgia.

He adds, “We’re hoping [the DotMusic] process is cheaper, more transparent, and easier for your average independent artist. That’s why this is a good thing — because they have promised to make it easy to get .music domains without having to worry about cybersquatting and other kinds of rackets like that.”

Lowery says he’s “pleasantly surprised and cautiously optimistic” that DotMusic is still a major contender for .music, alongside some of the world’s biggest corporations.

The music industry — whose major bodies like the RIAA and the IFPI have lent Roussos’ company major credibility — has different but similar concerns. They mainly want to keep piracy sites off .music. “Unfortunately, the digital ecosystem has been awash with piracy,” wrote IFPI CEO Frances Moore, in a letter of support for DotMusic she sent to ICANN last week. “With respect to the .music gTLD, we support applicants that have publicly committed to … implement meaningful and robust safeguards … against online infringement.”

Roussos learned about both these concerns — musicians’ worries about losing control of their domains and the industry’s worries about piracy — when he first started his indie campaign for .music in 2008. For the last several years — long before the RIAA or the IFPI threw their support his way — Roussos, working off his flash of Zuckerberg inspiration, visited music conferences and reached out to industry bodies to garner support.

The industry pushed their anti-piracy agenda. The IFPI tells me they discussed with Roussos “the importance of adequate copyright protection measures.”

When Lowery bumped into Roussos at a music tech conference in San Francisco, the two discussed putting more power in the hands of small-time musicians. As Lowery recalls, it sounded like things weren’t as hopeful for Roussos on the music industry side.

“It really is, I believe, a David and Goliath story,” says Lowery. “I met him at a music tech thing, where he came up to me … and he said, ‘I’m trying to register the .music domain, and these big firms and record labels and technology firms are all blocking me — they’re trying to block me and I’m trying to do this because it’ll be good for artists.'”

Roussos put together a plan to satisfy both interests — the core policies that lay out what he would do if awarded the TLD. He says DotMusic would implement a two-step authentification process asking users buying .music domains to agree to a few stipulations — among them, that you are who you say you are; that you’re using the site for something (really, anything) music-related; that everything you’re doing is legal.

"DotMusic will have a team dedicated to doing enforcement and will even involve the National Arbitration Forum in serious disputes."

If you violate the agreement — if David Lowery reports you for buying cracker.music and trying to shake him down for thousands of dollars — DotMusic will evict you from the domain and make it available for someone else. Roussos said DotMusic will have a team dedicated to doing enforcement and will even involve the National Arbitration Forum in serious disputes.

Still, when the time came to submit the application to ICANN in 2012, the recording industry didn’t support Roussos. Instead, they supported the community application of a different group, called Far Further — the only other community applicant for the TLD. However, Far Further, as Billboard reported in 2012, was staffed largely by music industry veterans.

ICANN has already evaluated Far Further’s application, last year, and they dispatched it with little mercy. In order to win rights to .music, Far Further needed to receive 14 of 16 possible evaluation points from ICANN. They received three.

ICANN said the community that Far Further claimed to represent was actually more of a disparate collection of only tangentially-related organizations — more of a semantic problem than anything. But they also said Far Further only represented a segment of musicians in its application, largely excluded amateur musicians. “There are many individual musicians identified by the applied-for string who do not fall within the membership of the proposed community,” ICANN wrote in its decision.

Finally, once Far Further’s application and subsequent appeal were denied — about a month ago — the RIAA and IFPI hopped on board with DotMusic. Their application will be reviewed by ICANN in about a month.

Roussos is confident his application has a better shot at getting approved than Far Further’s did. In addition to the music industry, DotMusic has the support of organizations like IFACCA — the organization that represents government arts councils — and Reverbnation, which exists primarily to connect amateur musicians.

And he says he’s worded his application in such a way that ICANN may be more willing to accept his alliance of organizations than Far Further’s, though he may just have to lose a point on that score, and try to pass on the rest of ICANN’s criteria.

ICANN’s application approvals usually take several months to complete. In the meantime, Roussos is evangelizing his vision for .music — a vision that goes well beyond the concerns the defensive desires of both musicians like Lowery and the music industry. Roussos actually wants musicians to use these domains, and treat it like a community.

“I wanted to create something that could be shared by the music community,” Roussos says. It won’t create the kind of network effect he wants — music community members all adopting .music sites together — if bands just buy .music domains and redirect it to their old .com website. Roussos wants to convince musicians and organizations by telling them that if they launch a .music website in addition to their .com site, they can dominate search rankings.

“Bands are very competitive,” he continues. “Kanye West always looks at what the other rappers are doing. And if another rapper has a .com and a .music, and it’s getting him more traffic, [Kanye] is going to want to do the same thing.”

"A community-centric .music domain could simply mean more stability and democratic control in a digital world that typically features neither of those."

Regardless of how widespread its use ends up being, however, for players in the music world as diverse as David Lowery, Sonic Music and your friend’s band, a community-centric .music domain could simply mean more stability and democratic control in a digital world that typically features neither of those.

It could be the biggest thing to happen to the web since cashcats.biz.

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