A look at the coming launch of new top level domain names and what it means for trademark holders, domainers, and the internet community.
The overview of the new TLD (top level domain) process below is based on my research and a discussion last week with ICANN’s gTLD Program Director Karla Valente. Opinions are my own and not those of Valente or ICANN.
Why new TLDs?
There are already many top level domain names — from .com to .org to .info to .mobi. Many of them have not been generally accepted by web users. As the domain industry preaches, .com is king. So why open up the floodgates to potentially hundreds of new top level domains?
It’s part of ICANN’s mandate.
When ICANN was created a decade ago, its first Memorandum of Understanding with the United States government and the whitepaper on which it was based requested ICANN to create competition in the domain name space. This didn’t just apply to registrars, but also suggested creating new TLDs as a way to foster competition.
How was the framework set for new TLDs?
The general framework for new TLDs was the result of over 18 months of detailed and lengthy consultation with all constituencies of the global Internet community. Representatives from a wide variety of stakeholders – governments, individuals, civil society, business and intellectual property constituencies, and the technology community participated. In October 2007, the Generic Names Supporting Organization (GNSO) – one of the groups that coordinate global Internet policy at ICANN – completed its policy development work on new gTLDs and approved a set of recommendations. The culmination of this policy development process was a decision by the ICANN Board of Directors to adopt the community-developed policy in June 2008 at the ICANN meeting in Paris.
What new TLDs will we see?
It’s unclear right now. Some have suggested that corporations will get their own TLD – such as .eBay. You might also see .auto, .homes, and any other generic term. You can also expect geographic domain names such as .Texas. But not everyone is happy with how this is shaping up, particularly in respect to geographic TLDs (see discussion below). Also, you can expect to see a number of TLD applications that don’t use roman characters (IDNs).
How will trademark holders be protected?
There are two issues for trademark holders: top level domains that may infringe (e.g. someone applying for .ebay) and second level domains that may infringe (e.g. eBay.Texas).
There will be a process for trademark holders to object to an application for a new TLD. Think of it like a pre-emptive UDRP arbitration.
Second level domains will be subject to UDRP at a minimum.
TLD registries will have to propose a plan to ICANN to protect the rights of trademark holders, but this is not narrowly defined. That’s why we see various TLDs launch with different approaches. You will likely see many domains launch with a “sunrise period”, although this technically isn’t required. Sunrise can be handled in many ways, too: .asia auctioned off domains that multiple trademark holders claimed.
Many trademark holders vigorously defend their trademarks in domain names. With dozens of brand names and thousands of typos, it’s currently a struggle for companies to defend their trademarks. With the potential for an onslaught of new top level domains on the horizon, companies will have to rethink their approach to managing trademarks in domain names. It may be prohibitively expensive to register all variations of brand names in all TLDs.
What is the timeline?
A draft RFP for new TLDs should be released before next month’s ICANN meeting in Cairo. It will then be open to community feedback. A final RFP should be released in Q1 2009, with an application launch within 3-6 months.
Personally, I think this timeline is aggressive, partly because of details still to be debated amongst stakeholders.
What details remain?
There is a lot still to be determined and a lot of bureaucracy to overcome.
For example, there is currently disagreement between the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC) and the GNSO Final Report on Introduction of New gTLDs because it does not include provisions for geographic names. The current thinking is that someone who wants to launch a geographic top level domain name will have to get approval from the government. But what is a geographic domain name? Is Newcastle a brand name or a geographic name? If it’s a geographic name, is it Newcastle, Australia? Or Newcastle, Canada? Or South Africa?
There will be outside organizations that will have to assess many of these issues. I envision this being very much like pro-active UDRP for TLDs but a much slower process. What happens if someone applies for .car and someone else for .cars? What if someone wants .mobile — will that conflict with .mobi? All of these issues are being addressed, and much of it will be handled by these outside evaluation organizations. The only certainty is that it will certainly slow the process down.
What opportunities are there for domainers?
I’ve never been a proponent of adding TLDs, but there may be money to be made here. As the process moves along, you may find it beneficial to apply for your own TLD. Pricing is not set yet, but I’d be surprised if it’s less than $100,000 per application.
Also, someone will have to solve the trademark holder dilemma. If domain strategy isn’t on the top of a corporation’s list right now, it will be thrust into the spotlight as new TLDs are introduced.