From MTPM: The Big Picture: Establishing Market Rules Online with the .music gTLD

This piece appeared in the February 2011 issue of MusicTechPolicyMonthly (subscribe at In coming days, MTP will have further discussion of the recent ICANN actions so watch this space.

When it comes to dealing with big problems in an economic market like the music business, using the word “solving” is something of a misnomer.  There is a certain comfort in thinking that we can “solve” problems, meaning that we can assess a problem,
think of a solution, implement it and make the problem stop in a repeatable way.  That’s what solutions are, after all.  E=mc².  The frustum of a cone.  The fundamental theorem of calculus. With all these solutions, you apply the formula and you get an answer that is correct and repeatable.

Solving the piracy problem for creators large and small created by Internet users large and small is different.  Achieving a solution to this problem requires getting comfortable with the idea that this solution is not a formula capable of solution like arithmetic.  “Solving” this problem requires embracing and accepting approximation over certainty. Kind of like choosing a life of hotel
rooms, long distance relationships and questionable food over being an Ivy League MBA.

We’re going to publish a series of articles in MTPM about  these “solutions,” or “the big picture.”  The reason this series is entitled “The Big Picture” is because that is what we will focus on – the big picture, getting the high level market forces pointed in the right
direction to foster true innovation and prosperity, not parasitic opportunism.  The first installment of The Big Picture focused on the positive effects for consumers and artists in establishing the “box of legality” around basic property rights.

Producing Information for Fans

MTP has often tried to focus attention on the large positive effects on the market of cooperative actions online and offline that don’t
require private civil litigation against masses of users in order to enforce property rights.  One important–and relatively cheap–way of accomplishing the Big Picture goals is to produce information for fans that will help them make a choice between doing something that supports an artist they like or something that hurts that artist.  That was the purpose behind Austin’s Artist Authorized movement, for example.

This is not a new idea: Think of the various “seals of approval” used successfully with a variety of brands.  A “seal of approval” produces a piece of information that is designed to let consumers know that the product bearing the “seal of approval” had to comply with certain standards in order to get the seal.  The dotMUSIC concept actually incorporates both property rights and the concept of the seal of approval to produce relatively inexpensive information for fans.

This installment of The Big Picture extends some of the ideas in the “dotMusic” top level domain interview with Constantine Roussos and some of the pitfalls in implementing a market solution–particularly when you have a relatively unaccountable organization like ICANN sets the rules about who gets the “seal of approval” rather than the artist.

Is ICANN trying to stop positive market information?

The dotMusic top level domain is another example of using property rules to let market forces help bring order to the market and make it harder for bad guys to “get away with it”.  If there were a truly reliable property system that allowed consumers to know that when they went to a webpage, any site using that domain was authorized by Radiohead.  Or Rilo Kiley or Quiet Company.  Artists big and small would have a piece of information they could use to let fans have the choice of where they wanted to go for the band’s music.

And of course, it would then make it immediately more obvious who was not authorized. Note – this system is not designed to discourage licensing to third parties.  A dotMusic TLD gets at a different problem of defining property rights outside of the licensed retailer environment.  So guess who is not going to be too excited about that idea.

Industry Response to ICANN

A coalition of 15 international music industry organizations have concerns about a .music top level domain, some of which are
borne out of concerns with allowing ICANN–a group that does not appear to be particularly accountable to artists–to decide who in the “community” gets to control an artist’s dotMusic TLD–i.e., take the decision away from the artist and give it to the “community”, whoever that is. These organizations include A2IM, the Songwriters Guild of America, Nashville Songwriters Association International, AIM, IMPALA, and the major national and international trade organizations.

And if recent experience is any guide, putting a group like ICANN in charge of any issue that could help artists, you can almost guarantee that ICANN will oppose empowering artists.

The principle reasons these groups are concerned about a dotMusic TLD have to do with ICANN’s decisionmaking and accountable
governance.  Plus given that ICANN has recently tried to change the rules in a way that makes it harder for artist’s to control their own dotMusic domain is not a good sign.  Meaning that it is entirely possible that ICANN could adopt a dotMusic gTLD and then fix the rules so that these domains could be taken over by say the Pirate Party as representing the “community”.

Here are a few issues discussed in a Washington Post article (that also is a good backgrounder):

1.  ICANN’s Lack of Transparency in Applications

You would think that if you were going to start something like dotMusic that was designed to protect artists, you would want to be sure that if you allowed an applicant to gain control over the gTLD, the real Arcade Fire would be the only ones who could get the domain.  This would required some definitive application to–it appears–ICANN, and all of that application material should be made public so that anyone attempting to squat on the domain could be challenged.  Better yet-don’t let squatters apply.  Instead, ICANN has used what appears to us to be a relatively unilateral power to cut back substantially on the amount of information that must be disclosed-based on some power that ICANN has from some unappealable place.  So ICANN’s methods seem to further the current existential threat to creators rather than helping to bring order to the market.

2.  ICANN’s new community rules facilitate pirate capture

It should be obvious the same people who steal from us now will try to steal from us using the dotMusic domain–perhaps particularly so.  Witness the Pirate Party darlings The Pirate Bay and their capture of IFPI related domains.  ICANN should be going out of its way to be sure that this kind of thing does not happen in a system designed to produce trust in the network and help artists.  It seems that ICANN want to force hijacked artists to prove that a pirate takeover of the artist’s dotMusic domain would have a “material detriment” to the Internet.  In a world where Anonymous is viewed by many as having a positive effect on society, how would a dot Music domain captured as part of the next “Operation Payback” ever be seen as a “material detriment” on the Internet?  And do you want to spend the time to prove that to ICANN which seems pre-disposed to finding no such “material detriment”?

Is ICANN Missing the Point?

The main difference between dot Music and a typical commericalization of a domain name is that dot Music has at least two specific goals that must be satisfied to communicate important information to the market place in an attempt to solve a market problem.  Most importantly, it communicates authenticity of origin and honesty of transactions.  Like Austin’s Artist Authorized
movement that pre-dates it, dot Music tells fans that the artist involved approves of what goes on in the artist’s name on this particular website.

Second, it tells the fan that any commerce done by the fan on that website is money that gets to the artist.  No advertising should be
sold on the site, no commerce should be done on the site, that is not authorized by the artist.

ICANN needs to concern itself with these rules first, and make protecting artists from pirates hijacking artist dotMusic domains a top priority.  And if that is not its top priority, then ICANN needs to make itself much, much clearer.