Depending on the person, the word auction can bring to mind a dusty, hot structure full of livestock and a fast-talking announcer with a Western lilt to his voice or a cool, quiet room of well-dressed art patrons waiting for the next Impressionist masterpiece to be unveiled in a stately building on the Upper East Side.
Aside from applicants for new generic top-level domains (gTLDs) and those in the ICANN community, most people probably don’t think of auctions as a way to resolve what are essentially bids for words – words as they appear to the right of the dot in your address bar.
When more than one company or group applies for the same gTLD, a “contention set” is formed. A contention set can be resolved in one of four ways: community priority evaluation, direct negotiation, a private auction not affiliated with ICANN, or an ICANN auction.
The ICANN auction is considered the “auction of last resort”, even by ICANN, since it means the contention set could not be resolved through community priority evaluation or through an agreement between the parties. Additionally, it means that those applicants who “lose” the auction (i.e., those not being awarded the gTLD) will not receive anything from the winning applicant – such as monetary compensation or compensation in the form of select domain names in the TLD in contention – in return for the future Registry Operator being awarded the string.
Given that applicants only receive a 20% ($37,000) application refund after being unsuccessful in an ICANN auction, a number of applicants have been eager to resolve contention sets through other means, including private auctions, where the party (or parties) not awarded the gTLD is (or are) compensated.
While many corporate applicants have voiced hesitation about entering private auctions out of fear that applicants may drive up the bidding to increase their payout, it is likely that more applicants will find a non-ICANN means to resolve contention sets as the scheduled dates for ICANN auctions approach.
The schedule for ICANN auctions, as our own Stephanie Duschesneau explained in a blog posted earlier this year, has caused some consternation among applicants. In response to feedback from the community about the long timeline (the last contention sets were to settle in 2016, “an eternity in business terms”, Stephanie notes), ICANN adjusted the initial auction rules to allow for the resolution of 20 contention sets a month as opposed to 10, moving up the last scheduled auction to March 2015.
According to the current ICANN auction schedule, only one ICANN auction is planned for June 4 because other applicants in contention have postponed going to ICANN auction. In the meantime, 13 strings – or new gTLDs – were resolved last month through private auctions, according to industry blog Domain Incite. Does this mean that applicants are treating the ICANN auction as a last resort, as ICANN had hoped? Possibly, but it’s too soon to tell.
As FairWinds Senior Consultant Lillian Fosteris explained, “Some applicants are eager to move forward and want assurance that the string is theirs. Consequently, they elect to resolve the contention, if possible, sooner, rather than later. Others, including brands that applied for closed generics, are still trying to figure out their next steps. Still others are set on proceeding to ICANN auction, whether it is later this summer or as late as 2015.”
Fosteris also noted that, in the most recent version of the New gTLD Auction Rules, ICANN reserves the right to postpone an auction at its sole discretion and that – in the event of a tie (following the winning bidder being declared in default after the conclusion of an auction) – ICANN will use a random number generator to award the gTLDs.
Private auctions may actually resolve an entirely different question: If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much is a word worth? Judging by what applicants may have already paid for strings like .YOGA, the answer is in the millions, at least to Minds +Machines (now the proud owner of .YOGA). Whether Internet users deliver traffic to websites in .YOGA is another matter, but given that yoga is a $27 billion industry, it may not be a bad bet – or rather, bid.