Herman Sobrie, Legal Manager of EURid

In December Herman Sobrie, a Belgian-qualified lawyer, became Legal Manager (equivalent to General Counsel) at EURid, the Brussels-headquartered organisation responsible for the launch and management of the new .eu internet domain name.

After working for 30 years in private practice and in-house, this switch meant moving to a different type of organisation.

Brussels Legal spoke to Mr. Sobrie about his function within EURid, the legal issues that have arisen during EURid's "start-up" phase and about moving from a multinational to a not-for-profit organisation.

BL: What is EURid and how has it developed?

HS: EURid (www.eurid.eu) is a private, Belgian incorporated not-for-profit organisation.  After competing in an open, public tender organised by the European Commission, EURid was granted the right to launch and manage the .eu Top Level Domain (or "TLD") name for five years.

EURid registers .eu domain names.  It has agreements with registrars; the registrars offer registration services to end-users and who apply to EURid for the registration of a domain name on behalf of their clients.

EURid is owned and managed by a consortium of national domain name registries from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Italy, Slovenia and Sweden. The contract to manage the .eu name is renewable after five years and again it will be open to public tender.

EURid is headquartered in Brussels. The Stockholm office opened recently and offices in Prague and Pisa will open next year. The organisation is small (approximately 30 people) and very international.  The organisation can serve the public in all official EU languages.

BL: How was the .eu domain name launched and has there been much interest in it?

HS: Launching a new domain name covering the whole of Europe was a huge task.

Essentially there was a launch, or so-called "Sunrise", period from December to April where parties with various prior rights (such as national trade marks) could apply for a .eu name.

There were situations where parties with equally valid prior rights wanted the same .eu name and clear rules set out how each applicant could apply for that domain name.  Due to the volume of applications, it was an independent validator, PWC - not EURid - that examined the documentary evidence supporting those "Sunrise" applications.  PWC notified us of it's findings and then EURid made it's decisions.

Since April there has been the so-called "Land Rush" period when registering a .eu name is now open on a "first come, first serve" basis to anyone meeting the minimum criteria.

At the level of registrations the .eu domain name has been a success.  Within a week of the start of "Land Rush" there were 1.5 million registrations and by July it had reached 2 million. That figure has continued to grow and .eu is now the third largest country TLD in the world.  Not bad given how long established TLDs such as .com, .co.uk and .de have been around!

At the level of visibility, .eu's use is building and becoming more widespread.  Many companies are currently managing the switch from their existing (usually national) domain names to .eu. It is not simply a case of changing the website address and business cards.  A lot of "legacy" changes are required, like changing advertising on physical objects such as buildings and vehicles.  Such visible changes do not happen overnight.  Plus it is an attractive domain name for new businesses in Europe.

BL: Turning to you, what is your professional background?

HS: In 1976 I qualified as a Belgian lawyer and worked in private practice for the next 10 years.  I then moved in-house, working for 20 years in multinationals in a variety of sectors: starting with Elsevier (publishing), then Campbell's Soups (food and beverage) and finally Siemens (electronics).  I joined EURid in December as the organisation's Legal Manager, which is effectively the organisation's General Counsel.

BL: What has your position entailed over these first 12 months?

HS: My work can broadly be divided into two parts: legal advice and management work.

The legal advice, of course, mainly concerns IP rights, trade marks and other domain name-related issues.  My main focus is dealing with external stakeholders such as registrars and the European Commission.  As a small organisation not many internal issues have arisen so far.

The interaction between national, European and international law means as an organisation we are constantly learning.  I have found this particularly the case through dealing with the law of various Member States.  It is interesting finding out more about the different jurisdictions and "families" of law around the EU.

A fair amount of the initial stage work has involved registration disputes arising from the .eu launch period.

BL: Can you say more about these disputes and what EURid has been doing?

HS: Generally disputes concern some aspect of the registration process and are resolved either by Alternative Dispute Resolution or in the civil courts.

EURid, in agreement with the European Commission, appointed the Czech Arbitration Court ("CAC") as a "private court" and most registration disputes are dealt there. CAC is independent of EURid.

Two types of dispute are currently before the CAC. The first concerns registrations during the "Sunrise" period. Approximately 350,000 .eu names were registered during that period and 700 ADR procedures have been launched by .eu name applicants challenging EURid's decision.

These decisions have been overturned in approximately 100 out of the 300 or so decided ADRs so far.  EURid wants the prior right holder to have what belongs to him or her and some applicants indeed have good arguments to challenge the decision not to register their name.  EURid does not have an adversarial role in these proceedings; our role is to help provide the information required by the CAC.

The second type has arisen from the "Land Rush" registration since April 2006.  The relevant EC legislation does not allow speculative and abusive registration.  Approximately 20-30 disputes have arisen between two other parties and are before the CAC.  Again EURid has a neutral role.  So far the court has asked to confirm registration information rather than express our opinion on disputes.

In general the arbitration procedure is a quick, straightforward system using electronic filing to deal with most disputes.  To date there have not been any open court proceedings in Prague.

However EURid has found on occasion it is constrained by the EU regulations and ADR is not effective for dealing with all issues.  One example is so-called name "warehousing", where EURid has gone straight to the civil courts.

BL: What is this "warehousing" issue?

HS: Although there is no legal definition of "warehousing" (or domain "grabbing"), it is generally understood as registering huge numbers of mostly generic domain names for the purpose of selling them.  There is no legal provision forbidding reselling .eu names; it is not a regulated activity.

The one-time launch of .eu, in terms of it's scale, was unprecedented.  A few people saw the launch as the opportunity to grab as many names as possible, not to ever use the names but to resell them.

EURid received complaints about one "warehouser" in particular and after investigation, we concluded the contractual rule obliging registrars to only own a small number of names had been breached.  The matter, called Ovidio, is currently before the Brussels civil court.  This case has been widely discussed by the internet community.

In brief, a registrant incorporated approximately 400 limited companies in Delaware and then each company paid €10,000 to become an .eu registrar. This "warehouser" then grabbed approximately 74,000 .eu domain names.  Since EURid's agreements with it's registrars forbid them to "warehouse", EURid sued all 400 registrars before the Brussels Court in breach of contract and EURid looks forward to the court's decision in this respect.

It was in this context that we also blocked the 74,000 domain names grabbed by the registrant.  This action was annulled by the President of the Court for the only reason that we did not notify the registrant before blocking the names.  EURid has filed an appeal against that decision.

In discussing this issue I should make two points. First, that by far most of our accredited registrars are bona fide agents.  "Warehousing" is not primarily an activity of registrars, but of registrants generally.  EURid accepts registrars on a transparent, non-discriminatory basis and EURid's contract with registrars allows registrars to own a small number of .eu names for themselves.

Second, for EURid it is paramount to keep the use of the .eu domain name fair. The integrity of the .eu name is critical.

BL: How did EURid discover this "warehousing" issue?

HS: Three or four people in EURid look for potential patterns of abuse among the registrations.  "Warehousing" is just one issue.  Unfortunately I cannot talk about other types of abuse as these matters continue are ongoing and not in the public domain. But some individuals have gone to amazing lengths to cover up wrongdoing in their registrations. EURid scrutinises registered names and is prepared to revoke registration where necessary.

BL: What size is EURid's legal team?

HS: We are a small, international team comprising myself, a Belgian, and two legal assistants: Vanessa Cogorno (from Spain) and Marta Jusztin (from Hungary). We have had the capacity to deal with many legal issues so far.  Sometimes we have used outside (particularly local) lawyers.  We approach each matter on a case-by-case basis.

BL: And the other part of your work is management?

HS: Yes, I am a member of EURid's management team. Led by our General Manager (or CEO), Marc Van Wesemael, the team also is made up of our Business Development Manager, HR Manager, Communications Manager and Technical Manager.  We meet once a week and discuss the issues facing the organisation.  Most management decisions are taken together.

BL: What is the breakdown between the legal and management aspects of your work?

HS: The "purely" legal aspect of my role is greater than I had expected before joining: currently probably 90% is legal advice and 10% concerns management issues.

BL: What attracted you to switching to EURid?

HS: It is a brand new position within a developing, international organisation.  As EURid has just started, I can help the organisation as it grows to maturity.  Plus the organisation's purpose, the successful launch and maintenance of the .eu domain name, is a real challenge.

Working here I have no idea of the scale or variety of issues that will suddenly appear.  No one had expected the "warehousing" issue to turn up on our radar screen or knew how the matter would then develop.  I am sure other issues will appear from no where too.

BL: Are you glad you made the move?

HS: Yes. There is a big difference between working for an organisation like EURid and working in-house and (although it was a long time ago) in private practice.

Of course there is always a difference between big and small, private and public organisations. There is an excitement about the organisation, it has a "start up" feel.  Here, the decision making process is quick and nimble and the impact is very visible.

BL: You have a lot of professional experience, but were you daunted about working in this sector?

HS: I am 56 years old and many people I know were surprised when I joined EURid.  That is partly because some Belgians, when you are in your 50s, start asking: should you not be thinking of retirement?!  Also they see safety in a big organisation.

But age is not important, it is experience and attitude that count.  Most of EURid's staff are in their thirties.  Some other members of EURid's management team also have come in with a lot of previous business experience.  The key fact is we are all open to learning every day.

Sometimes various areas of new technology are viewed as being driven by only young people.  With the .eu domain name nobody, including us, really knew what was being started or how it would develop.  Experience has helped in dealing with unforeseen issues and managing relationships with stakeholders.

BL: How do you see your role and the organisation developing?

HS: It is difficult to make any predictions; EURid is a young organisation and the .eu domain name is very new. Certainly most of the "wave" of initial disputes concerning registration will be resolved by next year. Internally EURid is developing it's network of offices and externally promoting and protecting the .eu domain name. I am sure developments will be exciting and unexpected.

BL: Good luck and thank you for your time.