The Saskatchewan Law Firm that wants to own the Internet

Source: Tuesday, July 31st, 2012

And the other Canadian players who are wagering $185,000 per suffix just to be considered in the escalating generic top-level domain land grab

A handful of relatively small Canadian companies are going toe to toe against global tech giants like Google and AOL this year, but chances are you've never heard of them.

That's because they're not developing cheaper tablets or a new search engine. This particular opportunity favours the nimble and bold. Of course, some things never change and big bucks are still the price of admission into the rabbit hole of owning your own internet domain name extension.

Marketers from across the planet have spent the first part of the year filing proposals for new domain names by request of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the private sector, non-profit corporation created in 1998 to assume responsibility for the .coms, .nets, .orgs and, more recently, .jobs and .mobi that follow brand names, frankenwords and memes on which the internet is built.

ICANN received 1,930 applications for new generic top-level domains (gTLDs), a good portion of which are expected to go live throughout 2013 after thorough examination–and financing–eclipsing the current 22 in use. The application fee alone costs $185,000 and given the intense competition, applications for the same gTLD that meet the ICANN criteria will be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Of the dozen Canadian applicants made up largely of marketers (Rogers, Shaw) and technology companies (Tucows, Momentous), Merchant Law Group, a Regina-based law firm with 11 offices, is the true outlier of the bunch. Yet the firm has applied for more gTLDs–.app, .art, .blog, .club, .home, .law, .love and .news–than any other Canadian entrant.

With competing applications from internet heavyweights such as Amazon and Google, not too many Canadian companies would like their chances of being awarded the rights to manage so many of the most sought-after new web address endings. But Merchant Law Group is no ordinary applicant.

It may seem unusual for a firm of law, by nature a conservative field, to get involved in something with high financial risk — the $185,000 doesn't guarantee anything but consideration.

But Merchant Law Group, which declined to be interviewed, is one of the most entrepreneurial-minded law firms in the country, says Jeremy Hessing-Lewis, technical director at Vancouver-based Skunkworks Creative Group, which specializes in business and brand development for lawyers.

"They are one of only a couple of class action lawsuit firms in the country. And it tends to be the most entrepreneurial area of law because the law firm takes on all the risk," says Hessing-Lewis, a former lawyer. "But when a firm wins, it can be very lucrative."

According to Canadian Lawyer magazine, Merchant Law Group received between $28 million and $43 million for its work on the native residential schools case, the largest class action payday in Canadian history. It has also successfully steered actions against Pfizer and General Motors.

Merchant Law Group will need deep pockets–no doubt financed by its legal wins. But Hessing-Lewis suspects the firm may strike up strategic partnerships, particularly with technology companies, or may in fact have client backing on some of its applications, although he notes this is purely speculation.

Michael Geist, Canada research chair in internet and e-commerce law at the University of Ottawa, divides the applications largely into two groups: marketers looking for domain name brand extensions and companies like Merchant Law Group looking to sell something other than .com and, in Canada, .ca.

"A lot of companies think they have an attractive extension that can be marketed to the public," says Geist. "In a sense, they will make the same kind of play with their domain names as .org and .info did, only those extensions were okay at best. These are more innovative [domain names]."

Brand plays, on the other hand, are more about creating possible marketing opportunities and synergies. A company like Rogers, for instance, may offer web hosting services to customers with domain names ending in its wireless brands, like .fido and .chatr, with far more web addresses available to them than if they tried .com.

"It could create more stickiness of their other services," explains Geist. After all, a Rogers Wireless customer considering changing providers may think twice if it means also having to change his personal website address.

In mid-June, Merchant Law Group's managing partner, Evatt Merchant, told the Toronto Star the firm has always been interested in how the marketplace accesses different services online.

In the case of .love, for instance, Merchant said, "a number of different marketplaces would use it, including wedding planners, florists… even couples who are getting married."

Another key player that hopes to expand its business into domain name registration is Momentous Corp., an Ottawa-based holding company for internet companies like, a by-mail and by-kiosk DVD rental company, and, which monitors expiring and deleted domains.

Momentous has applied for four gTLDs, including .style for consumers, entrepreneurs and institutions committed to adding fashion to daily life, .rip, a venue to remember loved ones, places lost to time, defunct brands and out-of-market products, and .sucks to provide a medium for "sharing opinions" (to put it lightly).

Rob Hall, CEO of Momentous, says it has tapped its internal marketing leaders to help lead its applications. John Berard, formerly a senior PR executive at Fleishman-Hillard and Hill & Knowlton in the U.S., leads Momentous' .sucks application. Berard also runs corporate communications for Momentous.

"This is a marketing game now and not just, ‘We have this domain name and people will come [to buy it],'" says Hall. "With 1,400 new domain names possibly coming, you better have a plan to market them and explain why customers should use that name versus something else."