Domain names are located where registry and registrar are located

United States of America

In Office Depot Inc v Zuccarini (2010 WL 669263, February 26 2010), the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit was presented with the question of where a domain name was located for attachment purposes.

To provide a judgment creditor with the money to which it is entitled, a US federal district court can assert quasi in rem, or attachment, jurisdiction over property belonging to the judgment debtor that is situated within the geographical jurisdiction of the court. Although intangible property can be attached in such a proceeding, the situs of such property is often a disputed issue.

In the present case, the assignee of a favourable judgment in a case brought under the Anti-cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) attempted to satisfy its judgment by levying upon some of the many domain names owned by the judgment debtor. The judgment creditor’s assignee registered the judgment in the Northern District of California, where VeriSign, the official registry for all '.com' and '.net' domain names, has its headquarters. The district court appointed a receiver to take control of, and auction off, some of the judgment debtor’s domain names. The judgment debtor appealed, contending that the Northern District of California was not the proper place to attach his domain names, and that the appointment of the receiver was thus improper.

Before reaching the issue of the domain names’ location, the Ninth Circuit summarized the structure of the domain name registration system. It identified three classes of primary actors:

  • registries, like VeriSign, that operate a database for all domain names within the scope of their authority;
  • registrars that register domain names with registries on behalf of those who own the names; and
  • the individuals and companies, known as registrants, that own the domain names.

The court then determined that the issue was governed by state law, and narrowed its analysis to two questions:

  • whether domain names were property subject to execution; and
  • if so, where the domain names were located for purposes of execution.

The Ninth Circuit easily answered the first question, relying on one of its earlier decisions holding that domain names are intangible property under California law, which had been cited with approval by a California state appeals court. With respect to the second question, the Ninth Circuit first noted generally that intangible property can be located in more than one place under the legal fiction of assigning a situs. Finding California law silent as to the location or locations for domain names, the court looked to the ACPA. The ACPA, which allows a trademark owner to proceed in rem against an allegedly infringing domain name, provides that the legal situs of a domain name is the judicial district where the domain name registrar, registry or other domain name authority that registered or assigned the domain name is located. The court used the ACPA as its guide:

"Given the persuasive but not controlling language of the ACPA, and the practicalities involved in bringing suit to execute judgments against owners of domain names, we conclude, under California law, that domain names are located where the registry is located for the purpose of asserting quasi in rem jurisdiction. Although the question is not directly before us, we add that we see no reason why for that purpose domain names are not also located where the relevant registrar is located."

Accordingly, the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s appointment of a receiver to assist in executing against the judgment debtor in the Northern District of California, where VeriSign is headquartered.

Jessica Ash, Kilpatrick Stockton LLP, Atlanta

Unlock unlimited access to all WTR content