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Domain name changes: eight need-to-knows

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Currently there are only 22 such suffixes but, from next year, almost any word in any language will be permitted. 

1 What are the present restrictions?

At present there are only 22 permitted suffixes known as “generic top-level domains” or gTLDs, most commonly .com but also including .net, .org and .gov, together with around 250 country code top-level domains such as .uk, .eu and .fr. Registration of domain names using these gTLDs is controlled by ICANN the not-for-profit corporation which governs and co-ordinates internet domain names and various registries authorised by ICANN. 

2 Why the changes?

One of ICANN’s key commitments is to promote competition in the domain name market while ensuring Internet security and stability. It is ICANN’s view that the new gTLDs will help achieve this commitment, opening up the top level of the internet’s namespace to foster diversity, encourage competition and enhance the utility of the domain name system. 

3 What are the changes?

The main change from a UK perspective is that entrepreneurs, businesses, governments and communities around the world will be able to apply to operate a gTLD of their own choosing. This could lead to a fundamental change in the internet if brand owners, countries, regions or cities register their names as gTLDs or as entrepreneurs exploit the opportunity to carve out sections of the internet and register common words, products or services as gTLDs. In addition the new domain name system will facilitate gTLDs in scripts other than the Latin alphabet; meaning for the first time that full domain names could be in Cyrillic, Arabic or Chinese. 

4 How does applying for a new gTLD differ from registering a domain name?

Purchasing a domain name is a simple process done through an accredited registrar for which the registration and renewal fees are relatively small. Applying for a new gTLD is both a complex process and a significant commitment of time and money. In applying for a new gTLD you are actually applying to create a registry business and manage it for the next 20 years. 

5 Should I apply?

In considering applying you need to ask yourself whether you have the expertise, time and money to operate a gTLD. Whilst the parameters haven’t yet been finalised it seems that it will cost you US$185,000 to apply and at least a further US$25,000 in fees per year. In addition to this you will have to ensure you comply with the technical requirements stipulated by ICANN, and, if you open up your gTLD to domain name applications from third-parties, you will need to provide procedures such as dispute resolution channels and a “sunrise” procedure for trade mark owners. 

6 How do I apply?

The short answer is go to ICANN’s website and download the Applicant Guidebook. Applications are likely to open early next year but the process will be thorough and extensive therefore you will need to start considering your application significantly in advance of the application window opening. It is not anticipated that any new gTLDs will be operable before 2013.

7 Will the changes affect me if I don’t apply?

Yes! In principle there is nothing stopping someone applying to register your brand as a gTLD. Therefore you will need to review the gTLDs which have been applied for when they are published and object if your rights may be infringed. In addition, the proliferation of gTLDs has the potential to exponentially increase the number of domain names which could infringe brand owners’ trade mark rights and therefore your internet auditing policies will need to be reviewed. ICANN is proposing allowing rights holders to register their trade marks in a database to minimise the risks of infringement but the costs of this have not yet been established. 

8 What will the consequence of this be for the future?

At the moment it is very difficult to say, however, if the opening up process is successful and entrepreneurs, brand owners and public authorities do register gTLDs then (1) the face of the internet and how the public interact with it could change dramatically, (2) this in turn will provide entrepreneurs and innovative brand owners an opportunity to reinvent how they use the web to market their products and support their brands but (3) with a several fold increase in the number of gTLDs and the use of different languages, it will be more complex for brand owners to monitor the web for trade mark infringement.

Mark Kramer is part of the IP team at law firm Stephenson Harwood. You can contact him at Mark.kramer@shlegal.com or on +44 (0)207 329 4422.

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