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OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

By Tina Gasperson on July 16, 2008 (9:00:00 PM)

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OpenDomain.org is an organization that offers to provide free use of certain domain names to worthwhile open source projects. Ric Johnson, the leader of OpenDomain.org and the owner of dozens of domain names, says he has spent thousands of dollars registering those domains in order to prevent "squatters and phishers" from snapping them up. He's keeping them safe so you can have a chance to use them. However, to some people, based on Johnson's past practices, it's not clear how OpenDomain.org differs from other organizations that buy up domain names in the hopes of future gains.

Johnson is a consultant and developer who uses Microsoft products to code. He says he wants to "break into the open source world," but doesn't have the skills. He says he decided to give to open source in his own way: by purchasing domain names and providing free use of them to worthy open source projects. Johnson says he is an "anti-squatter," purchasing domains for hundreds of dollars and protecting them from misuse. He asks nothing in return except an acknowledgment and a link to opendomain.org on every page of the sites he licenses.

Johnson gained notoriety back in 2000 when he purchased free.tv for $100,000. "I came up with an invention that was a lot like TiVo," Johnson says. "It was more like a Microsoft media center computer than anything, and I founded the company free.tv [to market the invention]. I spent more on that domain than I did on my house. I believed at the time that by getting [one of the] first .tv domains, I would get a lot of exposure."

Johnson says he experienced frustration because his Web host wasn't able to host .tv domains. The invention didn't go anywhere either. Somehow this gave him the idea, he says, to buy domains and let certain groups use them. "I thought, I have to spend this much, why don't I set up a program that collects domains and helps out different groups." Johnson wanted to advertise on those groups' sites in exchange for the use of the domain. "Usually, if you wanted to advertise your domain you'd go to Google and buy some ad space. My idea was to take a few thousand and buy a domain that a squatter had and give it to a good group in hopes that they would link to us. I was trying to get money because I'm Joe Developer -- I'm not a millionaire."

Johnson says the reason he began to focus on open source groups is that he realized the value of open code and wanted to help out. "I am a Microsoft developer. I couldn't really break out into the open source world. If I switch over to Linux, I'm going to be starting over as a PHP or JavaScript developer. I couldn't just stop my job and start over in the open source world. [Donating domains] was a way of me working for open source."

Johnson scored a few big-name domains and contacted the project leaders, with mixed results. His first attempt at helping a well-known open source project turned sour. In 2005, Johnson stumbled upon the Wordpress.com domain and bought it, then offered to let Matt Mullenweg, the founding developer of WordPress, use the domain according to the terms of OpenDomain.org. That didn't go over well with Mullenweg. He wrote, "I think the main disagreement between Ric and myself is that I believe [Wordpress.com] should be used for the nonprofit, free to everyone WordPress project, and he wants a hand in some sort of commercial venture on top of the work of WP volunteers."

Mullenweg, who had no comment for Linux.com, convinced Johnson to hand the domain over to him. "After I gave it to him, he sued me," Johnson says. "I spent a hell of a lot of money on that domain and $30,000 more on lawyers." Mullenweg refused to comment.

Johnson admits he made a mistake with the WordPress affair. "He was completely right. He owned the idea of WordPress and I didn't understand that at the time. I think we could have worked it out better." Since that misunderstanding, it seems Johnson has changed his tack with regard to donating domain names to open source projects.

"I thought I was doing something good with Matt. All my advisors starting saying, 'Hey this is great,' so in the midst of that we bought drupal.com." The Drupal community reacted with disdain when it found out that Johnson had registered drupal.com. "Everybody in the community hated me," Johnson says."

"They want to piggy-back on the great reputation of Drupal to get their link on high traffic, high page-rank sites," wrote a forum member at drupal.org. "And they want to do it under the guise of 'open.' What is so open about cybersquatting a domain, then 'benevolently' allowing the people who are busy making the domain valuable to use it..."

Johnson says it took a bit of explaining. "When I talked to Dries Buytaert [Drupal's creator and original project leader] he was originally like, 'OK, what are you trying to do? OK, you're contributing in a different way, but you're still contributing." Johnson ended up transferring ownership of drupal.com to Buytaert, and the domain sits unused, though Buytaert commented in a press release that he was "very grateful" for the contribution.

"Its been a couple of years now. If he thinks it dilutes his mark, that's up to him and I have to take a step back and believe that for Drupal he's doing the right thing. But remember, my whole training for 30 years is Microsoft, so it's very hard for me to look back and say, 'I gave you this domain. It cost me, and it's still not used.' It's frustrating because I could have put ads on it and taken the money and donated that over a period of time."

Not everyone hates him

Not all of Johnson's domain registrations lead to acrimony. Gerry Demaret, part of the leadership team of FOSDEM, was surprised by the response he received from Johnson after Demaret discovered that Johnson had registered fosdem.com. "At first we were suspicious," Demaret says. "The [OpenDomain.org] Web site only gave vague information and their goal was not very clear to us. We thought that [Johnson] was a domain squatter with a cover to make his actions seem generally accepted."

Demaret contacted Johnson to try to understand the situation better. "Almost instantaneously I received a reply from Ric, telling me he had tried to query [the nameservers for fosdem.org] to see if they responded authoritatively for fosdem.com, because he wanted to point the nameserver records to us already. No need to say, I was really surprised by this friendly and quick action from him."

Brendan Eich, the creator of JavaScript, says Johnson donated ecmascript.org to the Ecma standards body without incident, and Eich placed an acknowledgement in the footer according to the terms specified by OpenDomain.org. And Jon Ferraiolo, the leader of the OpenAjax Alliance, picked up openajax.org from OpenDomain.org. "His donation was a pure gift, with absolutely no strings attached," Ferraiolo says. "Everything I have seen indicated that he work with other organizations in a similar way to how we worked with us."

By all appearances, it seems that those in favor of Johnson's method of contributing to open source software development outnumber those who are perhaps not so happy. In any case, Johnson is not likely to make many new domain purchases because, he says, his wife is not happy with the amount of money he's already spent. And unless you're the likes of Brendan Eich or Druys Buytaert, don't expect a quick response to your request for a domain nowadays, because Johnson admits he's been "ignoring" many of the requests that still get posted to the site.

Tina Gasperson writes about business and technology from an open source perspective.

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on OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

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OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.31.202.4] on July 16, 2008 11:36 PM
Is it just me, or does this guy sound like a real loser? $100,000 on a domain that went nowhere?

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Re: OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.14.71.197] on July 17, 2008 08:11 PM
I am an entrepreneur. Yes, I spent a lot on a BRAND, which included the domain, but at least I TRIED something.

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OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 65.32.200.185] on July 17, 2008 12:45 AM
Why not ask the groups before you purchase the domain? That would save a lot of confusion.

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Total Domain Squatter

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.92.13.244] on July 17, 2008 01:53 AM
I've read the terms of service,
they are giving you a service for free ,
and they won't let you forget it..
According to the TOS (http://www.opendomain.org/terms/) :

6. "The domain must be actively marketed and significantly used"
What is that supposed to mean , define "actively" marked ,
and "significantly" used , way to vague

they then go on to define the terms of #6...

6.1 "Periodic content changes"
Who defines periodic ?

6.2 "Regular submission to search engines"
Who defines regular?


8."We would like a link on all pages"
You have to give them free advertising

8.1 "The link must be predominate and visible"
You must potentially ruin the layout and design of your website that
you worked so hard to create

8.3 "All outbound links must be marked with the nofollow attribute.
For example, all anchor tags should have rel="nofollow" in their markup.
This does NOT include the link to OpenDomain.Org"
That's right ... no links get index by search engines except theirs ...

11.2 "No defamatory comments"
Defamatory to who ? , who defines defamatory?

Why is all this important ? , why does it matter who defines what as which ?

because

14. "Your rights to use any domain end automatically if you breach these terms in any way."
They can kill your domain without notice

I made a comment summing up the problems with OpenDomain on their site
http://www.opendomain.org/terms/#comment-5511

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Re: Total Domain Squatter

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.14.71.197] on July 17, 2008 08:13 PM
I HAVE to have terms of service because of idiots like you.

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OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.74.205.122] on July 17, 2008 02:13 AM
I think he is doing it for the good; but just didn't quite get it right in his formula.

OpenSource *is* harder to sell, so unless you've got some really good innovation, things will be tough.

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Re: OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.14.71.197] on July 17, 2008 08:14 PM
Thanks for the support.
To tell the truth, I still do not quite have the formula right. Oh, well. Keep trying!

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Squatter, plain and simple.

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.192.250.149] on July 17, 2008 07:29 AM
"says he has spent thousands of dollars registering those domains"

It costs $9.99 to register a domain name. And anyone can do it in 10 minutes; nobody needs this guy's "help".

He's trying to make a bundle out of selling advertising, by exploiting the naivety of some open source developers.

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Re: Squatter, plain and simple.

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.14.71.197] on July 17, 2008 08:15 PM
If domains are so cheep, please let me know why YOU do not own BUSINESS.Com

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OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 203.208.110.227] on July 17, 2008 10:35 AM
I have never understood the issue with 'cyber sqatting'. Whats the diiference between this and buying the next block of land that will go up in value. I think he can do as he wants, if you don't like it buy your own domain.
I don't unserstand why we complain when people do things to make money, isn't that what our society is all about?

http://tnetech.net

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Re: OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.14.71.197] on July 17, 2008 08:20 PM
I think the term 'squatting' may help here: (from Wikipedia)
Squatting is the act of occupying an abandoned or unoccupied space or building that the squatter does not own, rent or otherwise have permission to use.
Cyber squatting is to buy a domain BECAUSE of the brand someone else has already created. That is why it is wrong.
For example, someone already owned the domain FaceBook.Com BEFORE they were popular, so it was not cyber-squatting
I am the anti-squatter because the domains I buy are already squatted - I buy them and give to the projects - a la Robin Hood.

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OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.95.133.107] on July 17, 2008 01:35 PM
"isn't that what our society is all about?"

Greed?? I'd like to think not.

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Re: OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 206.222.198.12] on July 18, 2008 01:38 AM
honestly don't most new project check for a domain to be available befor they start??

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OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 72.219.163.106] on July 18, 2008 03:05 AM
I have to say its pretty funny that nobody has replied to [ip: 12.14.71.197], who seems to insinuated /(claim) that he is Johnson.

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OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 69.108.119.45] on July 18, 2008 05:04 PM
Well, there's another problem with buying domains from squatters and then donating them: You're helping to enrich the squatters. Presumably, if a FOSS project holds the trademark on a term, they should be able to force the squatter to give up the domain. Donating money to pursue that legal avenue, while maybe not as cost effective (lawyers aren't cheap, after all), might be more morally desirable.

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Re: OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 12.14.71.197] on July 21, 2008 06:33 PM
My primary goal for OpenDomain is to raise awareness.
Giving $$$ to squatters does, in effect pay off the bad guys, but there really is no alternative. The professional scammers are very sophisticated in avoiding disputes.
Please note that some domains are not actually 'squatted' - people that own a domain BEFORE a project becomes popular and you are out of luck, which is exactly what happened with some of the most popular domains (Facebook.com and others)

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OpenDomain.org owner: Selfless FOSS helper or domain squatter?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.162.149.199] on July 20, 2008 05:35 AM
Please don't take this as an insult, but if you've got the means to drop $100k on a domain/brand -- Why not find a web hosting provider that could handle the .tv TLD? Or until you could find one, colo a box somewhere or get a highspeed link to your home and host it yourself?

Additionally, while your efforts at anti-squatting are indeed noble... Isn't paying squatters huge sums of money the same thing as negotiating with terrorists? It just encourages those bottom-feeders to continue.

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