On 26 June 2008 the Board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the not-for-profit organisation set up in 1998 to oversee the structure of the internet, got everybody excited when it announced that it had approved a recommendation to liberalise the rules on the allocation of top level domains (TLDs) that could see a whole range of new domain names introduced to the internet’s addressing system from next year. Dr Paul Twomey, President and CEO of ICANN, called it “a massive increase in the ‘real estate’ of the internet”. The Board essentially accepted that it is possible “to implement many new names to the internet, paving the way for an expansion of domain name choice and opportunity”.
The proposal, if implemented, would exponentially increase the current range of 21 generic TLDs, which include .com, .org and .info. Applicants will be able to “self-select their domain name so that choices are most appropriate for their customers or potentially the most marketable”. The new system will not be reserved for businesses, individuals will be eligible to apply for a domain name provided they can show a “business plan and technical capacity”. ICANN expects applicants to apply for targeted community strings—like the existing .travel for the travel industry and .cat for the Catalan community—as well as generic strings like .brandname or .yournamehere. Apparently, there are already interested consortia wanting to set up citybased TLDs, like .nyc (for New York City), .berlin and .paris. At this stage, it is also suggested that the expanding system will support different scripts such as Arabic, Cyrillic and oriental scripts—currently, the system only supports 37 Roman characters. As ICANN observes, this will be “very important for the future of the internet in Asia, the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia”.
A final version of the implementation plan must be approved by the ICANN Board before the new process is launched. It is intended that the final version will be published in early 2009. Upon approval of the implementation plan, it is expected that applications for new names will be available in the second quarter of 2009. There will be a limited application period during which any established entity from anywhere in the world can submit an application that will go through an evaluation process. It is anticipated that there will be additional rounds relatively soon after the close of the first application round.
Trade marks will not be automatically reserved. But there will be an objection-based mechanism for trade mark owners where their arguments for protection will be considered. Offensive names will be subject to an objection-based process based on public morality and order. This process will be conducted by an international arbitration body, drawing on the provisions of a number of international treaties.
The big IP question is what does this mean for trade mark proprietors. This may become clearer when the application procedures are fleshed out, not just for the new TLDs, but for domain names within them. ICANN hints at an objection procedure to protect brand owners from conflicting applications and presumably there will be certain ground rules under which the new TLD registrars will be expected to operate including adoption of the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy and appropriate sunrise procedures to protect brand owners. Nonetheless, an inevitable consequence of an expanded internet address system is an incremental increase in cybersquatting. Major brands could face enormous costs from funding defensive domain name registration strategies in respect of the new domains.