Who Owns the Amazon?

May 6, 2013

Amazon rainforest domain nameThere is a fight underway for control over the Amazon.  It is not, however, a battle among nations.  Instead, it is a conflict over the right to own one of the new Internet generic top-level domains (gTLDs), “.amazon”.  The outcome of this dispute is likely to have an important impact on the future of trademark and domain name management.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Number (ICANN) authorized the purchase of new gTLDs by essentially any party willing to pay the significant purchase fees (often in excess of $100,000).  The gTLDs are the .com, .gov, .org portions of Internet addresses.

Under the new ICANN system, parties can create their own gTLDs and pay ICANN for the right to own and control the addresses to be registered in those new gTLDs.  Many parties have applied for ownership of a variety new gTLD, including Amazon.com and its effort to acquire .amazon.

Amazon’s proposal is opposed by the national governments of the countries that comprise the Amazon Co-operation Treaty, led by Brazil and Peru.  These governments contend that a private entity should not be authorized to control use of “Amazon” as a gTLD.

The governments argue that no private company should be permitted to own a significant geographic region’s name as a gTLD.  They suggest that such private ownership would impede the ability of the governments involved to protect the interests of the region.

The Amazon governments claim that Amazon.com’s ownership of the gTLD could impede public interest Internet activities associated with the Amazon.  They point to important environmental and indigenous rights efforts that make use of Internet activities, and they take the position that those efforts on behalf of the region could be disrupted by private ownership of the .amazon gTLD.

This is not an isolated dispute.  Several other well-known geographic regions are engaged in similar battles over gTLD control.  For example, the government of Argentina is contesting clothing retailer Patagonia’s application to purchase the .patagonia gTLD.  Similarly, the Chinese government is contesting hotel chain Shangri-La’s proposal to buy the .shangrila” gTLD.

Commercial enterprises that have invested significant resources into the development of their brands and associated trademarks understandably view the gTLD ownership opportunity presented by ICANN as an extension of their brand-building and marketing efforts.

Government opposition to those commercial efforts in instances when the names involved are widely-recognized geographic regions is also both understandable and appropriate.

This conflict underscores the tension between trademarks and domain names which has been present since the earliest commercial days of the Internet.  ICANN’s decision to use gTLD expansion as a revenue-stream is understandable, but may not be the most appropriate domain management strategy.

It seems to be time for ICANN to refine its approach to the new gTLDs.  Some form of more active management control over gTLD development is required in order to serve both commercial and public interests effectively.  Creation of new gTLDs should not be a process driven entirely by commercial market forces.