Domain names: another industry that's crying wolf?

31-03-2013

Stuart Fuller

Domain names: another industry that's crying wolf?

With the first delegations of new generic top-level domains just weeks away, Stuart Fuller looks at how to avoid being left behind, and whether the new programme will be the cataclysmic shock many are predicting.

So here we stand, on the verge of the biggest technological change we have ever seen. The dawn of the new Internet age.

But have we been here before? It certainly feels like it if you, like me, are of an age to remember the change of dialling code in London from 01 to 071/081 in 1990. I also remember it changing further to 0171/0181 and then again to 0207/0208, and of course we had the massive paranoia around the Y2K time bomb, which was due to make airplanes fall from the skies, computers eat our money and life as we knew it end at midnight on December 31, 1999.

But, of course, we are still here. The doommongers have had to wait for another day before their pessimistic soothsaying comes true. Will they have their moment in the sun when the world of domain names gets a massive shot of steroids in the coming months?

As I write, after years of debate, planning, legal challenges and delays, the first new generic toplevel domain (gTLD) is due to be delegated in the next few weeks. The first suggestion of changes to the whole domain name infrastructure started back in 2008 but it was only in 2011 that ICANN formally announced that it would be opening the doors of the Internet to everyone, as long as you had the cash.

More than 1,900 applications were received, from household names, communities and new companies formed especially to take advantage of this major change. That number will be significantly lower when the new gTLDs start to be launched in late April.

They may begin to appear as a trickle, with legal debate and operational issues still to be resolved, but we will then start to see a steady stream appearing every week. ICANN hopes to reach a velocity of 20 new gTLDs delegated per week, which will be sure to confuse even the savviest of brand owners.

Herein lies the main problem facing businesses. How many people who should be aware of the major changes are still sitting in the dark? Despite the best efforts of domain name companies, IP law firms and the technical press to try and educate the world at large, it seems that the gTLD story may be just another case of the boy who called wolf.

In the same manner that the telephone code changes were supposed to bring chaos and confusion and the Year 2K was supposed to send us all back to the dark ages, these new domain name suffixes may not actually change all online life as we know it.

Secondary market domain name company Sedo recently contacted more than 500 small and medium enterprises about the plans to revolutionise the domain name world. A staggering 63 percent of respondents were completely unaware of the new gTLD programme, with many others unable to understand what benefi ts it will bring them. Perhaps the most telling statistic is that 94 percent said they had no plans to adopt any of the new gTLDs when they were launched.

Of course, statistics can be made to prove anything, but it would be foolish to ignore these findings altogether. We are about to see the biggest opportunity, and threat, for brand owners since the first domain name was registered back in 1985 and it appears that many organisations, for whom this change was made, are completely unaware it is on the horizon.

The danger of ignorance is that it fuels the status quo. Brands who dominate the online space will continue to do so without any opposition. Cyber crime, the very problem that ICANN wanted to prevent with the new gTLD programme, will still be a menace to all brands.

The advantage of using the Trademark Clearinghouse (TMCH) to secure rightful domain names for brand holders could be lost, meaning that valuable domain names will go unregistered in the trademark sunrise phases of the gTLD launches, and be available in the general availability phase to anyone.

But it is not too late. The opening of the TMCH in late March is simply a precursor to the main event, the start of the delegation process of the first gTLD, which ICANN is still hoping will happen in late April. For once it may not be ICANN which is behind the delays in this timeline. For any domain name to be ready to be delegated into the root zone of the Internet, it must have passed the evaluation of its application, passed the TLD testing phase and finally agreed to sign the lengthy ICANN registry contract.

Something tells me that few registries will be in a position to move forward having achieved all of that in just a few weeks. And then of course they are not obliged to open their registry for up to a year. Therefore, it may be some time before even the first domain trademark sunrise period is announced.

That is good news for brand owners who are still unsure what to do. The opening of the TMCH is a good opportunity to start getting a new domain name strategy formulated. Every brand owner needs to ask a number of questions before it is too late:

  • What trademarks do I want or need to protect in any new gTLD sunrise period?
     
  • What registrations are key to my brand?
     
  • Which ones need to be secured during the sunrise phase?
     
  • What gTLD strings do I want to block rather than register?
     
  • What new strings do I intend to ignore?
     
  • How will I manage brand monitoring and infringements?

All these questions need to be answered in conjunction with a review of a brand’s existing domain portfolio. A good starting point is to review domain name versus trademark registrations, understanding where the gaps are in your existing portfolio. This will generate a wish list of registrations, and this can then be applied to the new gTLD strings due to be released in the coming months and years.

There is a danger that brand owners will be the victims of information overload in the coming months, so it is important that they understand what is key to them in terms of a domain registration strategy. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for brand holders to be on an equal footing with global corporations in the race to start the new age of the Internet. Don’t be left behind in the starting blocks.

Stuart Fuller is director of communications at NetNames Ltd’s parent company, Group NBT Ltd. He can be contacted at: stuart.fuller@netnames.com

This article was first published on 01 April 2013 in World IP Review

Domain names, gTLDs, ICANN

Trademarks and Brands Online