ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has begun accepting applications for new generic top-level domains (gTLDs), allowing businesses, groups and even governments to request their own private “dot anything” website addresses.
There are currently only 20 gTLDs, plus a couple-hundred two-letter country extensions over which ICANN has little control. The addition of the new gTLDs will mark the most significant change to the internet’s addressing system since “.com” was first implemented in January 1985.
Many brands have taken the prudent step of registering their names and trademarks by buying domains in as many existing gTLDs as possible (e.g. company.com, company.net, company.info, etc), typically as a protective measure to prevent others from publishing content that might misrepresent or damage the brand. While purchasing a domain name in any given gTLD can be costly, once owned a domain is relatively inexpensive to maintain, and thus perceived as a benefit by both marketers and intellectual property guardians alike.
With the introduction of the new gTLDs, the question brand owners should be asking is whether they should apply to be a registry holder of a new gTLD, both as a new marketing channel and as a proactive defensive measure. I’ll address those questions below—first, a bit of background on why ICANN is undertaking such a radical change to the very infrastructure of the internet.
The Rationale For New gTLDs
ICANN was formed in 1998 as a not-for-profit public-benefit corporation to coordinate the internet’s global naming system. It’s not controlled by any government, but rather uses a consensus-based approach working with numerous influential organizations and government agencies to assure the stability and secure interoperationality of the internet.
Another of ICANN’s key responsibilities is to promote competition in the registration of domain names. The “.com” space has grown crowded, with few options for anyone seeking a new website without resorting to paying domain brokers significant sums, or inventing new words or unnatural word combinations. There are few alternatives—most other non-dot-com gTLDs are quite specific for particular types of organizations, such as “.aero” and “.museum,” and others, like “.biz” and “.info” haven’t really caught on with internet users. So ICANN decided the time was right for the addition of new gTLDs, but rather than mandating the names, as it has done in the past, ICANN opened up the process for anyone to apply for a gTLD using any words or combination of characters.
This means a company can apply to use its name or trademark (“.target” or “.facebook”) or product (“.levis” or “.kleenex”). Perhaps more significantly, affiliated groups could gain their own internet domain (“.kurd” or “.vegan” or “.democrat”). And the new gTLDs needn’t be in ASCII Latin characters, opening up the domain space to countries or territories who’ve previously been unable to get internet addresses in their native languages.
An Opportunity For Marketers—Or Cybersquatters?
Many marketers see the new gTLDs as a terrific new opportunity to connect with customers and reinforce brand awareness. What better way than having your own domain with a “.ourcompany”, “.ourproduct” or “.ourtrademark” extension?
This may be true for very large, global brands which have the considerable resources required to pay ICANN’s fees and then operate the gTLD on their own. But for most small, and even medium-sized businesses, it’s probably not worth the bother. The new gTLDs will, in all probability, likely evolve as an annoyance for most who do not seek control of their own gTLDs.
Applying for a gTLD is not the same as registering a second-level domain name. When you apply for a new gTLD you are applying to run a registry business, and will be held responsible for a critical and highly visible piece of internet infrastructure. Unless you’re prepared to make a significant investment a gTLD is probably not for you (unless, that is, you want to open up registration and sell secondary domain names (company.mygLTD, anykeyword.mygTLD, etc) in much the same way that Verisign and GoDaddy do with “.com”).
There’s also an application fee of $185,000, with potential additional fees for “specialized process steps,” as well as ongoing yearly registry fees for successful applicants. Applicants must also demonstrate sufficient financial depth to keep the registry fully operational for at least three years even if the business plan does not achieve its objectives.
And it’s not like this is the internet’s new real-estate bonanza: ICANN plans to limit the number of new gTLDs to no more than 1,000 per year. The application process for the upcoming round will only be open for three months, and ICANN says it will take nine to 20 months to process each application. That means the earliest that approved domains will appear online will be at some point in early-to-mid 2013. If the program is successful, ICANN will open new application rounds in succeeding years.
Bottom line: Applying for a new gTLD is an expensive, involved, do-it-yourself process with many obligations. And you run the risk of not being accepted for failure to meet ICANN guidelines, or even due to the scarcity factor of the limited number of new gTLDs that ICANN is allowing to be created.
So, if acquiring a new gTLD has limited appeal from a marketing standpoint, what about protecting your brand or intellectual property?
ICANN is well aware of past and potential abuses of the internet domain name system, and has added a number of additional safeguards to deter malfeasance with the new gTLDs. For example, there’s a in-depth vetting process to make sure that applicants meet rigid guidelines for operating the new gTLD. Applications from known cybersquatters will be also be denied.
Among other steps implemented to help protect intellectual property rights, ICANN has created a global trademark clearing house. As part of the application process, anyone who has registered a government-certified trademark will be notified by email if someone tries to incorporate that trademark in a new gTLD. There are also appeal processes and systems in place that allow ICANN to simply shut down an offending gTLD without the lengthy and complicated appeal processes that were often necessary to kick cybersquatters out of virtual real-estate in the past.
Protecting Your Brand & Intellectual Property
If you’ve decided not to apply for your own new gTLD, it’s crucial that you monitor the process to ensure that someone else isn’t trying to use your brands, trademarks or other proprietary intellectual property.
About two weeks after the application process closes in April, ICANN will publish the public portions of all applications received, including applied-for strings, applicant names, application type, mission/purpose of proposed gTLD, and other public application data. If you’re worried that someone may be trying to infringe on your brand or IP, you’ll be able to check this out and protest accordingly.
The New gTLD Program Status link is already active, but again, you won’t find any useful information there until mid-April. Once ICANN publishes the data, you’ll be able to see application results, (who has applied for what and the status of the application) and statistics and charts for the application round, such as applications by region, type, IDNs, processing statistics, and more.
How To Apply For A New gTLD
Still want to apply for your own new gTLD? Here are some resources to help get you started. Note: the application process for this round of new gTLDs closes on April 12, 2012.
- ICANN’s New Top-Level Domains Website
- Benefits and Risks of Operating a New gTLD
- New gTLD Frequently Asked Questions
- New gTLD Applicant Guidebook (multi-language links)
- New gTLD Blog
- Application & Evaluation Process
- Getting Ready for New gTLDs
- Getting Ready Transcript
- Ask the Experts: Product and Marketing
- Ask the Experts: Technical Know-How
- Ask the Experts: What Keeps You Awake at Night?
- Internationalized Domain Names
Also see related news about the new gTLDs at Techmeme.