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House subcommittee to address domains

The House Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property in a hearing tomorrow will explore domain names' relationship to trademarks and other intellectual property rights.

Delving into a topic bitterly dividing groups on the Internet, a House subcommittee tomorrow will hold a hearing exploring domain names' relationship to trademarks and other intellectual property rights.

The hearing before the House Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property is expected to take up issues that have dogged Internet policy makers for more than five years. The shift to a shared registration system for the most popular form of addresses, however, has brought new urgency--not to mention new controversies--to the debate.

Witnesses scheduled to testify include the following:

• Michael Daniels, chairman of the board at Network Solutions, which until recently had sole authority to register domain names ending in ".com," ".net," and ".org" under a 1992 cooperative agreement with the U.S. government. The Herndon, Virginia-based company is still responsible for maintaining the master registry database that competing registrars must tap into.

• Andrew Pincus, general counsel of the Commerce Department, which is responsible for enforcing the cooperative agreement awarded to NSI.

• Mike Roberts, interim president of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), recently appointed by the Commerce Department to phase out NSI's cooperative agreement.

• Ken Stubbs, chairman of CORE (the Internet Council of Registrars), one of five "test bed" registrars named to test the shared registration system.

• Francis Gurry, assistant director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization, which is affiliated with the United Nations.

• Jonathan Cohen, president of the intellectual property constituency of the Domain Name Supporting Organization of ICANN.

• Kathlene Karg, director of trade group the Interactive Digital Software Association.

• Mike Kirk, executive director of the American Intellectual Property Law Association, a trade group.

• Anne Chasser, president of the International Trademark Association.

Chief among the See Don Telage Newsmaker issues set to be heard is whether the ICANN is doing enough to protect the intellectual property of U.S. rights holders. The nonprofit company last year was charged with accrediting new registrars to compete with NSI and taking over other critical Internet functions.

At issue is whether ICANN's new role will contribute to the practice of "cybersquatting," in which speculators buy up thousands of domain names and resell them at significantly higher prices. Frequently, trademark holders choose to buy the names at inflated prices rather than face a lengthy fight in court.

So far, ICANN has left it up to each of the new registrars to come up with its own policy for handling disputes over domain names. Until recently, the conflicts--which arise when two parties both claim ownership rights to the same domain name--have been settled under NSI's highly controversial dispute resolution policy. The conflict could become even more charged if new registrars introduce dozens of inconsistent policies.

Also on tomorrow's agenda are recent changes to the "Whois" database, which lists the owners of Internet addresses. Trademark and copyright holders depend on the directory to learn who owns a domain name they believe is infringing their rights. Under the shared registration system set up by NSI and ICANN, each registrar is responsible for providing its own Whois, leading to possible confusion.

"The lack of a uniform, interconnected 'Whois' service makes it more difficult to track down trademark and copyright violators," House staffers wrote in a brief introducing the hearing. The brief also takes up another hot-button issue arising out of the shared registration system: NSI's contention that is has proprietary rights to the directory.

"Such a claim of ownership has caused great concern for many intellectual property owners who fear it could eventually lead to NSI restricting access to the database or charging a fee to access its information," the staffers wrote.

NSI's ownership claims also have attracted the attention of the Justice Department, which is probing the company for possible antitrust violations.

The meeting comes about a week after a separate House subcommittee held a hearing that took both ICANN and NSI to task on separate issues arising out of the opening of the registration system. Specifically, NSI was accused of dragging its feet to continue reaping monopoly profits. ICANN, meanwhile, was criticized for allegedly exceeding its limited authority.