Brand owners should prepare for Internet expansion in 2013.
Despite numerous concerns voiced by governments, law enforcement, brand owners, and businesses, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) continues to march forward with its new generic Top-Level Domain (gTLD) program, which promises to significantly expand the number of available Internet domain extensions in the near future. ICANN is currently evaluating more than 1,900 applications for approximately 1,400 unique gTLD strings on a rolling basis. (For perspective, there are only 22 gTLD registries active today.)
Approximately 150 of these applications have passed ICANN's initial evaluation, and absent procedural and/or technical delays, these domain extensions should reach the marketplace sometime in late summer or fall 2013. Examples of gTLD strings that correspond with generic terms that will be available to the public, have been approved by ICANN, and appear to be on a fast track include .?? ("gossip" in simplified Chinese Han characters), .camera, and .menu. Applications for other generic terms (e.g., .app, .blog, .search, and .shop) that would not be available to the public are still being reviewed by ICANN and will be subject to additional scrutiny. The applicants for these "closed" extensions plan to use them within their organization and with certain permitted third parties.
Other applied-for gTLD strings may take longer to arrive for various reasons, including third-party objections filed on a number of different grounds, strings being placed into "contention" by ICANN because more than one party submitted an application for the same string, and ongoing government scrutiny.
To complicate matters further, on April 11, 2013, ICANN's Government Advisory Committee (GAC) issued a communiqué that may have sweeping implications for the new gTLD program. The GAC has advised the ICANN Board that all new gTLDs should establish a mechanism for addressing cybersquatting and fraud at the registry level. The GAC also advised that strings linked to regulated and professional sectors, which are "likely to invoke a level of implied trust from consumers, and carry higher levels of risk associated with consumer harm," should have additional safeguards to protect consumers, including requiring registrants of domains in such strings to adopt appropriate security measures to protect the personal information of consumers. The GAC had other specific recommendations as well.
The GAC's communiqué may delay ICANN's new gTLD program, as each applicant must now respond and state how it intends to address the GAC's concerns. ICANN has opened the GAC's communiqué to public comment until June 4, 2013.
Against this backdrop and given that the number of available gTLD extensions will almost certainly expand to some extent this year, brand owners should familiarize themselves with the options available to both protect and extend their marks in this new space. In particular, in most cases, brand owners should do the following:
- Identify and record key word marks with ICANN's Trademark Clearinghouse, a centralized database of verified data on registered trademarks that will facilitate several rights protection mechanisms implemented by ICANN to protect trademarks in new gTLDs.
- Review the list of applied-for gTLD strings and identify those strings that are important for both commercial and defensive reasons.
- Consider what domains should be registered in each identified new gTLD string, including domains that correspond directly to your brands and domains that combine your brands with other terms.
- Put watching services for domain name registrations in place, identify who will review watch notices, and coordinate with counsel regarding these reports.