July 16, 2008

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

Author: Tina Gasperson

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.

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