Ownership of Names (was Re: Public identifiers and topic maps)

Steven R. Newcomb srn at techno.com
Tue Sep 29 02:55:46 BST 1998

> >[Even so, in response to what you say, I feel compelled to point out,
> >perhaps irrelevantly, that names cannot be owned in any meaningful
> >sense.  
> I own drmacro.com. This ownership is asserted through paying my bill
> to InterNIC, which acts as both a registrar of ownership (just like
> when you register the deed to your house at the courthouse) and a
> manager of access to the names (by controlling the DNS system that
> maps names to machines).

You're missing my point, which is a subtle nuance: namespaces are
ownable; the names in them are owned by the owner of the namespace.
Nobody can really "own" (permanently and absolutely control) a name in
a namespace without also owning the namespace.  

Your own example demonstrates the very point I'm trying to make.  By
definition, you can't possibly be the "owner" of "drmacro.com".
InterNIC owns the name "drmacro.com" because InterNIC owns the
namespace in which it exists.  What InterNIC has granted to you, under
a lease agreement, is the privilege of determining, temporarily, what
"drmacro.com" *means*.  The only difference between your relationship
to "drmacro.com" and everyone else's relationship to "drmacro.com" is
that nobody but you can change what "drmacro.com" *means*, in the
context of certain namespaces (Internet domain names being one of
them; I don't know if you've registered "drmacro.com" in the "US
Trademark" namespace, or in any other namespaces).  But this is *only*
because InterNIC restricts the ability of anyone but you to determine
what "drmacro.com" means.  Since InterNIC makes all the rules
regarding "drmacro.com", InterNIC owns "drmacro.com".  You don't.  You
rent it from InterNIC, under InterNIC's terms.

> Thus, I own the name space.

If you owned the Internet Domain Namespace, you'd be collecting the
money, not InterNIC.  So you must mean that you own the hierarchy of
namespaces of which the namespace whose own name is "drmacro.com" is
the root.  I agree with that!  You do in fact own the namespace that
temporarily happens to have the name "drmacro.com" in the Internet
Domain Name namespace.  Some of those names may themselves be the
names of namespaces, and those namespaces are also owned by you.

> I can argue that I also own the names within that name space because
> I also control the machine that has the resources that those names
> will map.

Exactly right, except for the first "also".

> So I maintain my assertion that names, not just name spaces, are
> ownable things.

If you own the namespace, you own the names that are in it.  If not,
not.  The fact that you own a namespace says nothing about whether or
not you own a namespace containing a name of the namespace that you

> If this were not the case, Compaq would not have spent 3.something
> million dollars to buy the name "www.altavista.com".  QED.

Phooey.  Compaq did that because it wanted to control what
"www.altavista.com" means.  It had to pay that money to the previous
leaseholder because of certain rights that are granted by InterNIC to
leaseholders of names in the Internet Domain Name Namespace.  One of
those rights is the right to continue to lease a name that one has
leased uninterruptedly from InterNIC; InterNIC simply doesn't allow
domain names to be hijacked.  But that's just an InterNIC rule, and
InterNIC writes the rules, because InterNIC (or Network Solutions
Inc. or whoever makes the rules) is the real owner.  Consider also the
fact that if you fail to pay the rent on "drmacro.com", it reverts
entirely to InterNIC, whereupon InterNIC will be happy to lease it to
anyone on a first-come, first-served basis.  That's not ownership:
there's only limited control, and there's no permanence.

The US trademark namespace is similar, except that ownership of this
particular namespace belongs to the American people.  If you don't use
a US trademark, you lose it.  Similarly, if you don't defend it
against infringement, you lose it.  Staying in business and paying for
legal defense is not the same kind of rent that you pay to InterNIC
for "drmacro.com", but it's still an ongoing upkeep expense, and you
don't control the rules under which you are allowed to continue
enjoying the privileges of trademark "ownership".  Those rules are
kind of peculiar, in fact.  As I understand them (and I'm no lawyer so
don't count on this information) tomorrow, for example, I could open a
business under the trademark "Micropolis", and I wouldn't have to pay
a dime to the liquidators of the now-defunct disk drive maker.
Micropolis is out of business, so the name "Micropolis" is up for
grabs.  Therefore, the name "Micropolis" cannot be considered to have
been "owned" by Micropolis in any ordinary sense.  (Don't try this at
home, BTW.  You'd be asking for all kinds of trouble if you created a
new business under the Micropolis trademark, but that's another

"Ownership" is a very strong term -- way too strong for the
arrangement under which you control "drmacro.com" in the Internet
Domain Name namespace.


Steven R. Newcomb, President, TechnoTeacher, Inc.
srn at techno.com  http://www.techno.com  ftp.techno.com

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