With backing from the National Association of Realtors and U.S. multiple listing services, the Canadian Real Estate Association has emerged victorious in a bidding war that drove up the price of owning and managing a new “.MLS” top-level domain to $3.36 million.

But for reasons that remain unclear, the price of NAR’s support in the fight is that, for now at least, U.S.-based MLSs will not be allowed to use the new domain to create public-facing website addresses like “chicago.mls” and market them to consumers as trusted websites, as originally planned.

Nearly five years ago, 15 U.S. multiple listing services banded together to form the nonprofit MLS Domains Association with the goal of securing and managing a new .MLS top-level domain for exclusive use by multiple listing services.

Membership in the MLS Domains Association would grow to include 55 U.S. MLSs representing more than 600,000 agents and brokers. But instead of applying to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to create and manage the .MLS top-level domain themselves, as originally planned, in 2012 U.S. MLSs threw their support behind the Canadian Real Estate Association’s ICANN application.

CREA, the MLS Domains Association noted at the time, owns the trademarks for “multiple listing service” and “MLS” in Canada, which made the trade group “a formidable applicant.”

In Canada, all MLSs are run by CREA members. In the U.S., NAR has trademarked the Realtor service mark, but not “MLS.” Some MLSs are run by companies that are not NAR members, and it’s difficult to trademark a term like “multiple listing service” that’s merely a description of services.

CREA and the MLS Domains Association had agreed that if CREA’s application to own and manage the .MLS top-level domain was approved, that in the U.S. only members of the MLS Domains Association would be allowed to register domains ending in “.mls.”  The idea was to help consumers identify websites powered by MLS data that they could trust as accurate and timely.

But things got complicated when a private company — Dublin, Ireland-based Afilias Ltd. — also applied to ICANN to run the .MLS top-level domain as “open” and available to all comers, regardless of whether they belonged to an MLS or not.

Last year, ICANN rejected CREA’s objection to Afilias’ application, clearing the way for the .MLS top-level domain to be put up for auction.

With backing from NAR, CREA bested Afilias in the Dec. 17 auction, submitting the winning bid of $3.36 million.

But under the terms of a confidential agreement between CREA, the MLS Domains Association and the National Association of Realtors, for now the .MLS top-level domain remains off-limits to American MLSs and all other U.S.-based real estate-related entities.

That’s according to Brian Larson, an attorney and consultant for the MLS Domains Association, who tweeted two days after the auction that:

In order for NAR or MDA to use the .MLS domain for real estate purposes in the U.S., all three organizations would have to agree on that use, Larson said.

When asked whether that was just a formality, he said, “I don’t know of any plans for them to ask to use (the domain for real estate purposes) or for MLS Domains Association to approve any such use, so I would call it a real obstacle.”

Larson said CREA and the MLS Domains Association agreed to the stipulation in order to receive NAR’s financial support in the ICANN auction.

“We essentially agreed to give up those plans [to secure the domain for use by U.S. MLSs] in order to get NAR to join the partnership,” Larson said.

NAR confirmed that it has no plans to allow use of the .MLS domain in the U.S. NAR spokeswoman Sara Wiskerchen declined to comment on why the U.S. trade group insisted on that stipulation, or whether NAR disagreed with CREA’s and the MLS Domains Association’s desire to restrict use of the .MLS domain to MLSs only.

“NAR will not be selling .MLS domains, as the association’s focus is on .realtor and .realestate,” Wiskerchen said, referring to two other new top-level domains that NAR has won the rights to manage.

Some U.S. brokers who are typically NAR members have objected to MLSs operating public-facing websites. Although NAR has not become directly involved in such disagreements, it has ruled that MLSs can charge members for providing a public-facing website as a “basic” (required) service.

Wiskerchen said that NAR was “pleased to be able to work with CREA to ensure that the .MLS domain was won by the industry versus any outside entity.”

Larson said that while he would have preferred that MDA’s members be able to use .MLS domains, he was proud that MLSs who are part of MLS Domains Association got the issue “on the radar” in the industry.

It’s important to MDA that “every Tom Dick and Harry can’t use” the domain, he said.

“There’s not going to be a Minneapolis.mls site out there that a real estate agent owns and operates despite the fact that she’s not an MLS. To us that’s really important,” he said.

NAR was not directly involved in the effort to obtain the .MLS top-level domain until this summer, Larson said.

NAR worked with CREA to secure the .MLS domain through its wholly owned subsidiary, the Realtors Information Network. RIN also manages the realtor.com operating agreement. RIN President and CEO Bob Goldberg was not available for comment.

Second Generation Ltd., a Cleveland-based investment firm that also owns and operates the .jobs top-level domain, assisted NAR and CREA in obtaining the .MLS domain, NAR said. The firm also helped NAR secure the .realestate and .realtor domains, including covering NAR’s application fees to ICANN.

Under the terms of the agreement with MDA and CREA, NAR has the authority to sell .MLS domains for non-real estate purposes — Major League Soccer comes to mind — but does not intend to.

That does not mean that the .MLS domain will gather dust. CREA says it will eventually make the domain available to its boards and associations for their MLSs.

In contrast to the U.S., Canadian MLSs are all run by associations belonging to CREA rather than separate, private companies, said CREA spokesman Pierre Leduc.

Leduc said there is currently no timeline for rolling out .MLS in Canada, and the trade group will take a closer look at how it will handle the domain in January.

“Our main focus right now is .realtor and rolling that out,” he said.

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