When the Internet was the “new thing,” a number of people—me included—bought lots of domain names. I bought domains related to my name and my company’s name just to make sure that no one else would buy and use them. Back then the purchase of .com, .net and .org domains was enough to be confident that you were protected. How things have changed. Protecting your intellectual property online is about to get infinitely more complicated.
Function of domain names
Every electronic device or resource that is connected to the Internet has a unique Internet Protocol or IP address that identifies it. Under the current system, an IP address consists of four numbers separated by a decimal point. Each number ranges from 0 to 255 like this: 18.104.22.168. You can navigate to an online resource, like a website using the IP address of the website. But it’s hard to imagine the Internet achieving its explosive growth if it required consumers to memorize long strings of digits in order to navigate the Web. Enter domain names. Domain names are easy to remember short cuts that point to IP addresses and hence give us access to the resource we seek. Domain names also allow us to move resources like websites from one server to another.
When you enter a domain name like openforum.com, your browser instantly communicates with a domain name registry that keeps track of domain names and the associated IP address. After looking up the domain name, the search request will identify the IP address of the resource and send that information back to your browser, allowing it to find the website. This happens so quickly that as a user you don’t notice.
Anatomy of a domain name
Each domain name consists of several parts called labels separated by dots. The right-label like “.com” in openforum.com is called the top level domain. There are two categories of top level domains (TLDs): Country code TLDs and generic TLDs. The country code TLDs end in two letters that represent a specific country. The United States has .us, Australia has .au and Tuvalu has .tv, for example.
The generic TLDs include:
-.gov reserved for US government resource
-.edu reserved for accredited educational institutions
-.mil reserved for US military resources
-.int reserved for international organizations
-.com initially reserved for commercial resources but now open
-.org initially reserved for NGO resources but now open
-.net initially reserved for technical resources but now open
Since the first domain names went live, several other generic TLDs have been established such as .INFO, .NAME, .MOBI and .XXX among others.
New TLD rules
Now is when things get complicated. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, which is the institution in charge of managing domain names (among other Internet-related duties) recently announced that TLDs would no longer be limited to the 26 predetermined labels. Now, it’s virtually unlimited.
Between January 12, 2012 through April 12, 2012 any established entity anywhere in the world can apply to ICANN to create and manage a TLD registry. This means that a company or an organization can apply for and win the right to operate TLDs like .ebay, .coke, .pepsi, .jobs, .bank, .store, .dvd, .money, .loans, even .anything.
This creates numerous headaches for businesses. First, your intellectual property is at greater risk. Someone could apply for a generic TLD that will infringe on your rights. Or a domain name squatter could buy your company’s domain on some or all of the new TLDs once they launch. Your customers may become more confused about which domain you are using as the new TLDs become active.
What can you do about it?
Not much. This is happening. If you are concerned about a specific TLD being requested, then perhaps your company or a consortium can apply for the rights to administer it via ICANN’s application process. Once applications are received, they will be published on ICANN’s website for review by the general public. If you see something of concern, you may file a complaint and an independent arbiter will evaluation the situation. Third, you should consider subscribing to an online service that monitors domain name registrations that can alert you to questionable registrations that could affect your rights.