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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

They Thought They Had Us By The Antenna

Seriously, squatters…now you want to sell? You bought a bunch of URL’s.  Now you want to sell them.

It was a dark and stormy night sometime in 1995.  My entry into the Internet world was thanks to a terrific VP of Marketing for a major pharmaceutical company.  We had given a presentation to her on pay-per-view and video on demand as we placed them in a test with one of the then baby-Bells.  After the meeting she asked, “Guys, do you think this Internet thing will ever amount to anything commercially?”

On the flight home (no angry passengers, no TSA, no service ponies) the guys I was with decided we needed to get some religion.  We studied a number of areas – designing, distributing, monitoring, including “naming.”  Network Solutions was the only game in town managing URLs…they tied site names ( to actual DNSs.  In other words, when someone went looking for a web page using a URL like, Network Solutions managed the relationship list that told Mae East and Mae West and all their friends, “Oh, looking for that?  Well, go to (Yes, it’s an intentionally impossible address.  But then, go dial 555 1212).

A few folks got a bright idea – register a bunch of URLs using companies' names then squat on them.  When the companies come knocking, bump that $70 registration fee up to a few – or many – thousand dollars.  You got it, they want it, supply and demand, eh?

Well, the law caught up with these squatters.  In effect, it said that the .com extension really was to be applied to commercial entities and declared that unless you had a reasonable right to use a URL, you had to give it up.  Said another way, McDonald’s Excavating could have registered and kept but others, with no connection to the name could not.

Seemed pretty simple.  You can breathe now, the backstory is over.

It got complicated for broadcasters.  Smart squatters registered hundreds of call letters – letters which, by and large, are gibberish and would be available to anyone and, therefore, not totally protected by UPC rules.  And they sat on them while they called or snail mailed stations offering to sell at anywhere from 10 to one thousand times the registration cost.

A few stations paid.  Most balked and went another direction…and it was the best thing they could have done.  The squatters forced stations to look for other names and in doing so, they incorporated (OMG) branding into their URLs.  So we saw,,,, or   The URLs actually clued prospective visitors in about the site and bolstered the stations’ brands.

So the Internet grew, more stations jumped aboard, started streaming and were able to cross promote between the web and over the air.  And stations succeeded because in their URLs, they had a catch phrase – mnemonic, if you will , in most cases – that would resonate with their audiences.

I think just about everyone I know listens to streams of broadcast stations.  And of them, I’d wager that most, if not all, know the URL of the station.  Some have set bookmarks and don’t remember.  Others rely on recognizing the station logo in the iHeartRadio listings or on and its derivatives.
Well the payoff to this rambling story is that about a week ago I got an email from a company acknowledging that I was the website manager (not webmaster…big difference) for a number of stations. 

They went on to say that they had recently acquired the URLs for the stations’ call letters.  It was quite well laid out and correctly listed the stations and their owners.

And after that, they laid out the sales pitch and why these stations needed their call letter URLs – just the plain 3 or 4 letter URLs.  They also said that it would be good marketing for the station as we could promote multiple URLs.  Oh, and that the offer included wouldn’t last long.  That offer, by the way, varied by market size so they did do some homework..

If you know me, you know that I jumped at the chance – No, no!  I was polite.  I simply laid out history and offered my condolences for their having purchased a pig in a poke.  It was fun.

Sadly, someone spent their (or worse, someone else’s) money to buy those URL’s.  Sitting at lunch, a couple of beers and they start talking and realize – falsely – that if they can get their hands on these dormant URLs, they can score big.

There was an episode of Twilight Zone (yes the original) where some guys stole a bunch of gold.  They put themselves into suspended animation for a number of years so that when they emerged, the robbery would be long forgotten and they would be rich beyond belief.  When they did actually awaken, scientists had discovered how to create gold artificially and their haul was worthless.  Not an exact parallel but close enough. 

Guys, enjoy your URLs.  You own ‘em.

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