Do you remember when the Internet took off in the 1990s and you could find a company simply by adding ".com" to the name and - voila! - there was the Web site. That worked well until all of the common names or phrases were taken because every business, organization, charity, or individual was lumped together in the same place. Then came ".org" and ".biz" and other extensions, each of which is called a "generic top level domain" (or gTLD), to try to bring some order to the Internet universe. You had to separately register you name on each of those with ".info" and ".net" and then link them together with a redirect. Ah, how simple the world was back then. Indeed, while most people do not think much past the basics "open" gTLDs that we have used for the past 10 years, ICANN has rolled out the likes of ".mobi" for mobile devices, ".aero" for the aerospace industry, ".travel" for the travel industry, ".jobs" for companies to post openings, and several others.
Now, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the group that is in charge of controlling how Internet addresses are handled, is pushing through with a new plan to allow literally hundreds of new top level domains starting early next year. This would allow for some more specific "community" gTLDs like ".boston" or ".sports" or even individualized company-specific names like ".redsox" or ".dunkindonuts". Since the naming convention will any string of between 3 and 63 characters, which will now include characters from other languages, there could be millions of possibilities.
What does this mean for trademark owners who have been diligently protecting their name through the various iterations of gTLDs that have come out over the past decade? It is hard to tell at this point. There will be some protections for trademark owners, but this may mark the end of the now commonplace occurrence of business owners buying their name in each domain - that just might not be possible anymore. That is why many companies were critical of the new plan when it was announced last year.
There certainly will be more to come on this in the next several months. Trademark owners in particular will want to investigate whether a company-specific gTLD makes sense for their business, and I am sure that multinational corporations like IBM and Coca Cola will shell out the $185,000 fee currently proposed for new applications. There is clearly a need to clean up the conventions of finding information on the Web. But I would expect that ".com" addresses will continue to be required minimums, particularly for small businesses, while there will be more experimentation with the new names for some time to come.