After many years and despite ongoing criticism and concerns from governments and intellectual property interests, the ICANN Board voted yesterday to approve the launch of the new gTLD program, discussed earlier on this blog here and here. The vote paves the way for a dramatic increase in the number of top-level domain names, by hundreds in the near term and likely thousands over the next decade, and will allow organizations to own their own top-level domain names (e.g., .foleyhoag or .lawyers) and operate their own Internet registries.

New gTLDs will not be introduced right away. First, ICANN will immediately launch its new gTLD "communications campaign" -- a global publicity program to educate the world about the new gTLD regime, and the new opportunities the gTLDs bring to the table. Brand owners, of course, are advised to educate themselves about the significant risks that will accompany these opportunities. Following the communications campaign, the first round of new applications will be accepted during the 90-day period between January 12, 2012 and April 12, 2012, with ICANN planning to publish the results of Initial Evaluations by November 2012. This suggests that we could see active new gTLD registries as early as spring 2013.

In the meantime, it is believed that the Applicant Guidebook -- the document describing the new gTLD application process and registry rights and responsibilities -- will be further revised over the coming months. Despite the Board's historic vote, open issues remain, including details regarding implementation of the various trademark rights protection mechanisms and the extent to which registry-registrar cross-ownership will be permitted.

Now that the new gTLD launch is officially impending, brand owners should be actively planning as follows:

1. Consider purchasing a top-level domain and operating a registry. The new gTLDs are not like the second-level .com domains we are accustomed to purchasing for $10 a pop. The application fee for a new gTLD is $185,000, and that's the best-case scenario where extended evaluation is not required and there is no one else applying for the same gTLD (in which case an auction will determine the winning applicant). Further, owning a gTLD means operating a registry, which is an ongoing operation with its own annual expenses. Accordingly, it is expected that all but the larger brand owners (Canon and Hitachi have expressed interest) will pass on this option. However, other brand owners might consider whether the new gTLD program presents opportunities to support or expand their businesses. If so, brand owners should familiarize themselves with the new gTLD Applicant Guidebook and assess the resources required to apply for a new gTLD and operate a domain name registry.

2. Evaluate trademark enforcement priorities and options. The final iteration (likely subject to further finalization) of the Applicant Guidebook provides for a number of trademark rights protection mechanisms, including dispute procedures and the Trademark Clearinghouse, a repository of brands that will support the trademark claims and sunrise programs that will be required of new gTLD registries. However, the sheer number of expected new gTLDs means that brand owners will be forced to develop a comprehensive domain name enforcement strategy to deal with expected problems arising from the new gTLDs themselves, as well as the second-level domains that will populate each registry.

3. Keep an ear to the ground. The Board's vote marks the start of the new gTLD program, but many of the specifics remain to be sorted out -- especially where trademark protections are concerned. These specifics will come to light over the coming months, and there may even be future opportunities for brand owners to provide input. Further, the new gTLD program will (with luck) be an iterative process, with applications occurring in rounds, lessons learned and changes implemented over time. For all of these reasons it is important for brand owners to seek out and stay apprised of ongoing developments.

We will be carefully monitoring the new gTLD launch as it progresses, and will provide additional information -- including brand enforcement details and strategies -- in the coming months.