Maybe I Don’t Own a Domain of My Own

I’ve owned this domain since 1999.

Although, “owned” may not be the correct verb, a point made clear by a professor at American University in Cairo writing about the Domain of One’s Own concept.

I don’t know why we say “domain of one’s own” and “reclaim your domain”. It’s not very accurate.

My understanding of ownership is that something belongs to me. That I have already acquired it or been gifted it. And I own it until I die, no additional payment required. If I own it and I die, it passes to my heirs.

That isn’t at all the case with domains.

When I created a domain, it didn’t become mine. Basically I don’t own the domain name. I pay for it every year. That looks like rent.

Domain of One’s Own (DoOO) is a concept that originated in 2007 at the University of Mary Washington, just down the road from here in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and which has now spread to many colleges around the world. In a nutshell, UMW gives every student and staff member a domain when they enter the college, and provides hosting services along with support to help them “design and create a meaningful and vibrant digital presence”. When people leave the school, they can take their domain with them to another host.

I’ve been following the DoOO project with great interest almost from the beginning, the benefit of knowing several of the people who worked on it at UMW. It’s a very compelling idea, one that I advocate for with K12 teachers and believe should be pushed down into high schools. (more about that in a coming rant)

However, there is a larger concept of “ownership” at play here.

Audrey Watters, who pointed me to the original post, takes a step back to ask an even more basic question: “What does it mean to “own” a digital good – a domain name or otherwise?”.

When it comes to all our digital data, the answer to the question “what do you own” is probably “not much.” You do not own your Amazon Kindle books; you’ve purchased a license to access the content. Your heirs will not inherit your digital reading library. You do not own the music you stream; you’ve paid for a subscription. Your heirs will not inherit your digital music library. You don’t own the movies you watch via Netflix; again, it’s a subscription and unlike a print magazine subscription, once you stop paying the bill, you won’t have stacks of old copies lying about. If you’re using proprietary file formats for your data or there are DRM restrictions on your content, it’s quite likely your heirs will be unable to open the files to even look at what they contain so as to judge if any of your bits and bytes are worth saving. You (likely) do not own the software you use (unless it’s open source); it’s been licensed to you. Similarly, you (likely) do not own the operating system that powers your computer; you’ve paid for a license there as well. And increasingly, there are restrictions with what you can do with the computer hardware as well as the software that you might think is yours because it is in your possession – but as Cory Doctorow argues, “If you can’t open it, you don’t own it.”

Although we have attempted to transfer our centuries-old concept of “ownership” from the physical world, digital goods are far often than not rented rather than purchased. Many content owners would love to shift that even farther to a pay-per-use model. Want to read that book again? Pay us again.

Anyway, so the first statement of this rant is incorrect.

I pay a domain registrar in ten year chunks to use the name (and to point people to the site). In addition, these pages are stored and served by another company to whom I pay an annual hosting fee. If I fail to pay either of them on time, this “domain of my own” disappears from the web. I cannot will it to my heirs like a paper journal (although I can transfer the lease on the off chance they will want to continue paying the bills).

Do I own even own the content on this site? Something to think about.

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