Real estate trade groups seek control of .Realtor, .MLS Internet domains

Goal: Help consumers discern source of information of real estate websites

Saying consumers should have a way of distinguishing between websites operated by industry professionals from those maintained by third parties, trade groups representing Realtors in the U.S. and Canada are seeking the right to create and manage several new top-level domains, including .Realtor and .MLS.

The National Association of Realtors (NAR) has applied to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to create and manage several new top-level domains including .Realtor. NAR intends to allow Realtors to register domains that incorporate their names if the applications are approved next year.

The Canadian Real Estate Association (CREA) has applied to ICANN to create and manage a new .MLS top-level domain, with backing from the MLS Domains Association, a nonprofit group of 55 U.S. multiple listings services that collectively represent more than 600,000 agents and brokers.

With the .Realtor domain, "our goal is to create a name space where homebuyers, sellers and investors can go to find the most credible, trusted real estate resources and professional services," said Moe Veissi, NAR's president, in a statement.

NAR has trademarked the Realtor service mark, and in the U.S. only dues-paying members of NAR who subscribe to its Code of Ethics may call themselves a Realtor. Similarly, only members of CREA, which is the exclusive licensee of the Realtor mark in Canada, may call themselves Realtors in that country.

Through its exclusive marketing partnership with NAR, CREA's members will be allowed to use the .Realtor domain in Canada. CREA has more than 104,000 members and more than 100 real estate boards and associations.

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"Consumers turn to the Internet to begin their searches for homes, and our hope is that they come to recognize .Realtor as the premiere site for valued real estate services in Canada and the United States," said Wayne Moen, CREA's president, in a statement.

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Fight brewing over .MLS domain

In early 2011, ICANN, which manages the Internet's domain name system, launched a process to allow the creation of potentially hundreds of new top-level domains. Examples of top-level domains that are common today include ".com" and ".org."

The ICANN application deadline was May 30, with the first new top-level domains expected to be approved sometime in 2013.

On Wednesday, ICANN posted the prospective domains and their applicants online.

NAR submitted its application through Real Estate Domains LLC (RED), an entity specifically created to apply for and eventually operate the .Realtor domain. NAR has also filed applications for .realestate and .home through two other companies specifically created to apply for the top-level domains, DotRealEstate LLC and DotHome, LLC.

Three other companies have also applied for the rights to .realestate, while 10 others have also applied for .home.

Each domain application cost $185,000, a cost paid for by NAR's strategic partner, Second Generation Ltd., a Cleveland-based investment firm that also owns and operates the .jobs top-level domain sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management.

NAR has partnered with Second Gen on the application, review and development process of the .Realtor domain for more than seven years, NAR said, since around the time ICANN first began considering the introduction of new top-level domains in 2005. NAR declined to elaborate on why Second Generation paid the application fees.

Should any of the new domain extensions be approved, NAR members, local and state associations, association MLSs and other affiliates will be allowed to register for domains.

Currently, NAR is planning to give the first 500,000 members who register a one-year subscription to one domain name, according to NAR's website. A .Realtor domain using a member's name will be available on a first-come, first-served basis, NAR said. Realtor members and affiliates will also be able to use the .Realtor domain for branding and marketing, NAR said.

CREA takes lead on .MLS application

The MLS Domains Association formed in 2010 with the purpose of applying to ICANN to create, manage and promote a new .MLS top-level domain.

Last week, the MLS Domains Association announced that instead of filing an application with ICANN itself, as originally planned, it had entered into an agreement with CREA to support CREA's application.

CREA owns the trademarks for "Multiple Listing Service" and "MLS" in Canada, which make the trade group "a formidable applicant" for the .MLS domain, the MLS Domains Association said.

Under the terms of the agreement, the MLS Domains Association agreed to provide financial support for CREA's application, and cooperate in protecting CREA's MLS trademarks within Canada and the U.S. The MLS Domains Association and its members also obtain the exclusive rights to use .MLS domains for real estate uses in the U.S., the group said.

"When we learned early this year of CREA's plans to apply for .MLS, we immediately began negotiations with it to join our efforts, recognizing that we have shared interests and that we would be stronger working together," said Merri Jo Cowen, president of MLS Domains Association and CEO of My Florida Regional MLS, Inc., in a statement.

The MLS Domains Association announced Cowen's appointment as president last week. She replaces Bob Bemis, who resigned after taking a position as vice president of partner relations at real estate search portal Zillow. Russ Bergeron, CEO of major MLS Midwest Real Estate Data LLC (MRED), was also appointed to replace Bemis on MLS Domains Association's board.

"There is much misinformation regarding listing data and the accuracy, timeliness and validity of the content being exposed to the public," Bergeron said in a statement.

"It is the highest priority of MRED leadership and me to fully participate and support the efforts of the MLS Domains Association with the ultimate goal of raising the data and delivery standards of the entire industry."

Per CREA's request, the agreement limits the use of the .MLS domain in the U.S. to websites operated by MLS Domains Association member MLSs "that contain real estate information about the geographical areas served by those MLSs," MLS Domains Association said.

CREA has not yet formalized its strategy for the use of the .MLS domain in Canada, according to CREA spokesman Pierre Leduc.

"But our branding efforts will be focused on the .Realtor top-level domain," he said.

"We expect the .Realtor domain to become the most trusted extension with regards to real estate information," he added.

One other company, Ireland-based Afilias Limited, which offers top-level domain registry services, also applied for the .MLS domain, in addition to dozens of other top-level domains.

In February, MLS Domains Association speculated that Nanning Billin Network Ltd., which operates real estate referral site MLS.com, might submit a competing application for the .MLS domain. Nanning Billin owns the registered service marks "MLS" and "MLS.com America's real estate portal," which it purchased from a South Carolina corporation, MLS Network Inc. The company had informed MLS Domains Association that it intended to oppose the group's application to ICANN through a "rights objection."

According to ICANN's guidelines, third parties may file formal objections to any application within a window of about seven months after the list of ICANN applicants is posted publicly.

Afilias spokesman Vance Hedderel confirmed that Afilias applied for the .MLS domain on its own behalf, not for another client or entity, but declined to say whether Afilias planned to sell the top-level domain should it be approved.

"At this point, Afilias is not discussing plans for the domain, " Hedderel said.

Hedderel noted that ICANN has procedures in place for resolving contention between applicants, including the option "to resolve contention by a mutually agreeable settlement amongst themselves."

In order to head off a potential competing bid for the .MLS domain, CREA submitted two applications for .MLS to ICANN. One is a standard application and the other is a "community" application.

According to Brian Larson, secretary and consultant to MLS Domains Association and president of Larson/Sobotka Business Advisors LLC, community-based applications, which must meet certain criteria, trump generic applications in the ICANN process.

"In the case of MLS, for instance, is there a community of MLS that can be described as a community of MLS and does CREA represent it," Larson said.

ICANN allows applicants to withdraw applications and receive partial refunds of their application fee. According to Larson, should CREA's community application be successfully classified as such, the trade group would likely withdraw its standard application.

MLS Domains Association covered half the cost of the applications. "Other costs that could arise before approval include costs for dealing with objections, whether lodged by CREA/MLS Domains Association against the Afilias application or lodged by others against the CREA application," Larson said.

Should .MLS be approved, MLS Domains Association and CREA will split operating costs, which Larson estimates will be approximately $200,000 a year. The two trade groups will also share revenues from MLSs registering domains, Larson said.


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