Over the years, Internet users have become familiar with the Internet’s domain-name system (typically referenced as the "DNS" system) which sees users register domains ending with traditional generic top-level domains such as .com, .net and .org. These generic top-level domains have often been referenced as "gTLDs" and have come to symbolize a quick and relatively simple way to help reconcile the vast number of sites operated on the web. Recent proposals by the Internet Corporation For Assigned Names and Numbers (widely known as "ICANN") promise to alter our traditional notions of gTLDs and open a new frontier for those wanting to become among the first to register their own gTLDs.

As many readers will appreciate, the current DNS system limits gTLDs to 21 extensions (with .com, .net and.org being among the most popular). In the 1980’s (prior to the advent of ICANN), eight gTLDs (.com, .edu, .gov, .int, .mil, .net, .arpa and .org) were established. In 2000, ICANN established seven new gTLDs (.aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name and .pro). The next round of expansion came in 2004 when six new gTLDs (.asia, .cat, .jobs, .mobi, .tel and .travel) were created. Internet users have come to understand that these gTLDs typically correspond to a certain activity. For example, .com domains have come to be seen as having a commercial requirement and .museum domains typically relate to the operation of a museum. In addition to these normal gTLDs, individual country code extensions (referred to as country code top level domains or ccTLDs) such as .ca serve to provide some additional context to internet users.

In 2008, ICANN took steps to move towards a system in which individuals and businesses could register and operate their own gTLDs. In short, if a business such as IBM or Pepsi could operate .ibm or .pepsi as gTLDs, the reliance upon gTLDs such as .com could be considerably lessened. Obviously, such a significant change has raised concerns among many stakeholders.

In December of 2009, ICANN published a draft model for soliciting Expressions of Interest for new generic top-level domains (new gTLDs). The draft model was open for public comments until January, 2010. At the end of this public comment period, the ICANN Board intends to consider the received feedback and decide how to move forward. ICANN’s website currently indicates that a decision from the ICANN board is expected in the first quarter of 2010. It is our understanding that ICANN will be discussing feedback on the draft model for soliciting Expression of Interest at its March 7-12, 2010 meeting in Nairobi.

ICANN has indicated that virtually any public or private entity is entitled to apply for and, if accepted, operate its own gTLD. The application process will, however, require the applicant to demonstrate adequate operational, technical and financial capability to run a domain registry and comply with ICANN requirements and rules. The application fee for one gTLD is estimated to be $185,000 (with a $55,000 non-refundable deposit). In addition, if an applicant is successful, a Registry Agreement must be signed with ICANN which will require significant fixed fees.

Of course, the creation of new domain "strings" causes trade-mark holders a great deal of concern. The costs and technological requirements associated with operating a gTLD would be prohibitive for most businesses. Simply put, there must be adequate protections put in place to prevent new gTLD applicants from obtaining gTLDs that infringe upon existing trade-mark rights. While beyond the scope of this brief article, it appears that dispute resolution procedures will be built into ICANN's processes. Nevertheless, interested third parties should set up systems and procedures for monitoring new applications.

We will provide updates regarding the new gTLD applications as they become available. In the meantime, we strongly suggest that those interested in applying to register their own gTLD contact a qualified technology lawyer in order to best navigate the potential minefields inherent in the application process.