“The end of the Internet as we know it” was how some of the more alarmist tech writers proclaimed the recent opening by ICANN for applications for new global Top Level Domains. Considering the number of changes from the command line driven applications of the initial arpanet through the static web pages of the ‘information superhighway’ era to today, ‘The internet as we know it’ has had a chronically short lifespan. Still, the process deserves attention, particularly if you have a trademark or business identity that you are concerned about protecting.
What is ICANN and what are TLDs?
ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. It was set up in 1998 when control of the internet was released from the US government. They have several managerial roles in the operation of the internet, but for the purpose of this discussion they own the dot. This is called the root authority of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority and it is what ICANN controls. Being the root authority allows ICANN to define what are acceptable values before it, which are the Top Level Domains (TLD). Each TLD is then delegated to some other entity who has control over further delegation. For example, in 1985 the .com Top Level Domain was created and control delegated to what is now Verisign, who has registered over 84 million different domain names to go before the .com. But those .com domain names are registered though Verisign (or one of their many affilliates) and not through ICANN.
Furthermore registering your domain gives you the ability to delegate still further. So for example google.com does not have to separately register for their subdomains such as maps.google.com or sketchup.google.com or analytics.google.com.
A History of TLDs
Initially in the 1980s there were three Top Level Domains .com, .org, and .net that anybody could register. There were also four: (.mil, .gov, .edu, and .int) that were restricted to particular organizations. In 2000, seven more TLDs were added from a total of 44 applications. Some of those additional TLDs have become somewhat popular such as .biz and .info, while others have lesser usage, such as .travel, .museum, .areo, .name, or .pro. In addition, at that time ICANN began the process of authorizing two-character country-code TLDs which has proven to be mostly popular. Last year, after years of controversy, the .xxx domain was finally implemented, likely the last of the year 2000 applications to come to fruition.
How the 2012 Application Process is Different.
There are two main differences with the 2012 application round for new TLDs. The first is that international character sets are supported. There have been test TLDs using international characters over the last few years which proved their feasibility.
More attention has been paid to ICANN’s decision to allow brand name submissions for TLDs. For example, Google could register the .google TLD and then use maps.google as the URL instead of maps.google.com. Would Google see any particular benefit from doing this over their well-established .com address? It’s doubtful, but they certainly won’t let anybody else own a .google TLD!
Play Offense or Defense?
The practical reality is that with most of the new unrestricted TLDs, the majority of the registrations have been ‘defensive’ in nature. Existing companies want to ensure that their established .com presence is not confused or diluted by copycats, either to users or search engines. For example, you can type in Google.net or Google.biz and it will send you to the Google.com site. In the case of the recent addition of .xxx domains, most of the registrations have been either existing .com porn sites protecting against copycats or institutions such as universities protecting against sites that might damage their reputation.
You can always write a check and register your current domain as a TLD yourself. Except it is a sizable check for a small business. The application fee alone is $180,000 each, which does not include the cost of defending any challenges and the substantial monthly cost of operating the name servers that are the responsibility of a registrar. Still it is expected that many large businesses will defensively register their primary tradmarks as TLDs and direct them to their current internet presence.
Another approach is to play offense rather than defense. Shortly after the application period closes on April 12, ICANN will publish all of the completed applications here. There will then be a period in which objections can be raised on any of four criteria, one of which is infringement of intellectual propery. While less expensive than the defensive route, raising an objection is not free. ICANN is delegating review of intellectual property objections to the World Intellectual Property Organization. Their fee will be $10,000 for a single objection to a single application if a ruling from a single arbitrator is used. If a three expert panel is desired, the fee increases to $23,000.
The offense route also carries the risk of the arbitrator or panel ruling against you. It is unclear whether simply having an established .com presence will be sufficient for a successful challenge. Should being buy.com be enough to block somebody from registering .buy as a TLD? It is clear that pretty much every short word, phrase, or combination of characters has already been registered as a .com. If owning the .com is enough to block a new TLD application, the list of possibilities is very limited. Thus it is unlikely that this alone will protect you from somebody registering it as a TLD.
Does that mean that you should instead take the plunge and defensively apply to register your domain name as a TLD? It is hard to envision how a small business would achieve a return on the application fee, so it is difficult to recommend across the board. But every owner of a trademark or business identity should set a reminder to check the list of applications come April. That way, at least you know what is coming and you can decide whether to make an objection.