Most people that use the Internet are familiar with the generic top-level domains (gTLDs): .com, .net, etc., and use them on a daily basis. These gTLDs have gained a level of cachet, and are more commonly used than country specific domain names (e.g. .co.uk or .jp) by companies. In the past, users traditionally would use a search engine to find a website for a company. Now most users simply add “.com” to the company’s name (or trademark) to find the website. Due to the popularity of .com, most of the “desirable” domain names are already registered. It can be difficult to register a new domain name in the .com space, unless it’s something bizarre (sdfjhdskjfhsdwh.com) or unwieldy (like joeswestlosangelesrestaurantandbar.com rather than joesbar.com).
Because of the desire to have simple, easy to remember (and search engine optimization-friendly) domain names, a number of attempts have been made to create new gTLDs (such as .jobs, .mobi, and .biz). These new gTLDs have not been widely adopted or successful, and there are some indications that they are not profitable in the long term. New gTLDs pose risks to trademark holders (who likely already have registered the .com, .net, etc. version of their trademarks), and thus they often register their marks in the new gTLD (even if there is no intent to use the new domain name).
The logic is that it is cheaper and easier to register a domain name in a new gTLD than to have a competitor or cybersquatter do so (and thus have to litigate or use other methods to recover the domain name). Most new gTLDs have a sunrise period when trademark holders can preregister their trademarks- sometimes necessitating payment of hundreds of dollars in addition to registration fees. I have heard grumblings from my trademark colleagues that this is the only time that new gTLDs are really profitable. Observing how little these gTLDs are used and/or promoted, I tend to agree.
In spite of this, domain name registrars are convinced that new gTLDs (such as .sex, .berlin and .nyc) are desperately needed. If you have attended an ICANN meeting in the past decade (I have), this very vocal group constantly has pushed for allowing their gTLD to be accepted, or for opening the gates wide open and allowing for pretty much anything to be setup as a gTLD. It looks like ICANN got sick of the complaining, and has decided to implement unrestricted gTLDs.
Let’s just say that this decision scared the hell out of trademark holders. They imagine having to register their marks in dozens (hundreds?) of new gTLDs each year, maybe costing upwards of tens of thousands of dollars annually (for domains they have no desire to use). I work for such a trademark holder, and I agree with them. I have no idea how much it will cost, and question why we need all of these domains.
ICANN recently brought on a new president, Rod Beckstrom. In an interview with the Washington Post, Mr. Beckstrom said:
ICANN is simply asking the global community of IP attorneys and others to develop the best possible solutions they can which can actually be implemented. But one of the solutions is not avoiding the gTLDs, because there’s tremendous demand from all over the world to have those, and the number of companies who are opposing them appear to be a minority compared to those who think they should be out there and present.
I added the emphasis. Yes, Mr. Beckstrom says that the public is clamoring for these new gTLDs. I was shocked to read this. I have been a server administrator since 1993 (when I ran my college’s Gopher server), first professionally then as a hobby (I still administer the server hosting this blog). I am a rare attorney that actually understands and has worked to administer the underlying technology of the Internet. I am, for lack of a better description, a computer geek that spends a lot of time using and learning about the Internet.
I have not heard of a single general Internet user demanding new gTLDs. Most users do not even know what a gTLD is. The only time I have heard anyone demanding opening up new gTLDs is by domain name registrars and other companies that would make money from the registration of new domain names.
So, I decided to research if the public really is excited about new gTLDs. Not surprisingly, there was little info out there on this. I did, however, find one survey that was actually conducted by a registrar (Gandi Bar). The results are telling:
The majority of consumers polled (60%) agree that the liberalisation of domain name extensions will change the way they use the Internet, but not for the better. The sceptical amongst them believe that the Internet will become full of pointless domain names (for 65% of the people polled), messy and confusing (57%), too complex to navigate (46%) and out of control (41%).
Consumers muster little enthusiasm for any new top-level domains. A quarter of people are ambivalent about the prospect of a .music suffix and 28% would be wary of domains ending with .theirprofession. Just 15% think this sort of suffix would be appealing. Consumers are most suspicious of extensions linked to porn and religion. A massive 84% of consumers think .sex is dodgy, and two thirds think .god is suspect.
This registrar is admitting that the public doesn’t want these new, and likely confusing, gTLDs. Gone will be the days when you can add .com to a trademark or company name to find their website, you’ll have to poke around through search engines to find them. The public understands this, and doesn’t want this.
I decided to contact Mr. Beckstrom about his comments. Mr. Beckstrom, to his credit, is easy to contact online (he followed me back on Twitter and responded to my email within a day). I asked him how he could reconcile his statement with the survey I quoted (along with my own personal observations and experience). I told him that I, as an attorney with a company that has a very important trademark portfolio, would work with ICANN if we knew that the public really wants these new gTLDs. If it’s just registrars and not end users who want this, then obviously we trademark holders have some legitimate concerns about costs and loss of trademark rights.
Mr. Beckstrom replied that he received my email, appreciated my feedback, and would follow up once he had time to review my request. That was July 6, 2009- I’ll post again when I hear back from him.
Thanks to Ron Coleman for inspiring me to write this post.