What’s in a (domain) name? Another MnOrch dispute flares

While there's been a lot of name-calling during the Minnesota Orchestra lockout, the latest skirmish is about Internet domain names.

And depending on where you stand it's either a story of skulduggery or simply preparing.

A new pro-musicians group  Save Our Symphony Minnesota says it took that name in part because when they went looking for a web address they could use they discovered someone had beaten them to many other obvious candidates.

SOSMN Secretary Nils Halker says they began the search last week. "So we first of all thought 'Well, we'll call ourselves Save Our Minnesota Orchestra.'" They went to the domain name site to register it.

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"And it was taken," said Halker. "And we thought 'How about some of these others?' And we went down the list and found that I think a total of 12 were taken. And then we looked further and saw that they had been bought by the Minnesota Orchestral Association."

"And then we looked and saw that the date of purchase was May 24th 2012, which was four months before the lock out." Halker notes that was just after Minnesota Orchestra CEO and President Michael Henson returned from a meeting with other managers in Detroit where there is a particularly vociferous audience group Save Our Symphony Detroit, born of the orchestral labor conflict in that city.

The Minnesota group ended up with www.saveoursymphonymn.org, launching a Facebook page two days ago, and the website today. The Facebook page has already gathered over 4,000 'likes.'

When contacted by MPR, Minnesota Orchestra management said, of course it registered the domain names. The Orchestra's Director of Public Relations Gwen Pappas said it owns close to 40 domain names relating to the Minnesota Orchestra, describing it as  a common business protocol.

In an e-mail she continued: "With regard to the “Save our Minnesota Orchestra” type domain that we reserved in the spring of 2012 we  did so knowing that negotiations were going to be challenging.  At that point, the Orchestra had already made significant reductions throughout the organization (except the musicians’ contract) and the organization was still facing a $6 million deficit.  We purchased domains that we thought we might use in the future to share messages or to protect the Orchestra name, based on counsel from others who had been in similar situations.  On the same timeline Orchestra musicians were launching their own website.   What this indicates from both sides is that we knew a tough negotiation was underway and we were seeking ways to share our messages.  None of this is unusual in a difficult labor situation."

Pappas says the Orchestra registered the names in case it needed them for its own use, but in the end used a microsite within its regular site to disseminate news about the contract negotiations

SOSMN's Nils Halker says his group thought the Orchestra might say that, and that puzzles him, "Because they already have a well-known domain name MinnesotaOrchestra.org," he said "Why would they need 12? And it struck us that these are names that would be of particular interest to community organizations." Halker said his group is happy to have a name and a website now. "But looking backwards at the pattern it seems to say to us is that there was a concerted effort to control the message and to control the access of the community to the discussion, which plays into our original contention that we as listeners have felt marginalized and not listened to."

The Orchestra's Pappas dismisses the idea that the organization is trying to stifle discussion, saying in reality it has opened up its Facebook page to all comers. She also points out there is an infinite number of domain name possibilities, and idea that the orchestra would or could try to grab them all is unrealistic.

Consultant Jon Austin, who has worked in a number of contract disputes over the years including at Northwest Airlines, says he was not surprised to hear the Orchestra had registered the other domain names.

"Clearly the management folks knew how to read a calendar and knew the labor negotiations were coming  at a certain time and they should be getting ready for it. I am sure they had reason to believe they were going to be contentious given the nature of what they were going to be asking for."

He said however he agrees that registering domain names in an attempt to control discussion is ineffective. "By adding a hyphen or an underscore or mashing two words together or something like that, that probably doesn't pose too much of an obstacle to somebody's who's looking for a relevant domain."

However news of the situation has been the discussion du jour in the blogosphere, with SOSMN's own Emily Hogstad leading the charge on her Song of the Lark blog.

Meanwhile, there is no word about whether attempts to find a framework for mediation between musicians and management have made any more progress, and the September 9th deadline set by Music Director Osmo Vanska for a rehearsal to prevent his resignation looms ever larger.