Last month, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers ("ICANN") released its Draft Request For Proposal, also called the Draft Applicant Guidebook, regarding a streamlined application process for obtaining new top-level domains ("gTLDs"). See http://www.icann.org/en/topics/new-gtlds/draft-rfp-24oct08-en.pdf.

Currently, there are just 21 gTLDs: .com, .net, .org, .biz, .jobs, etc. Country code top level domains also exist, such as .us, .ca and .mx.

According to ICANN, the reason behind the gTLD expansion is to support huge increases in choice, innovation and the competition of ideas.

In the second quarter of 2009, ICANN will be opening the doors for any established business to apply to own a string serving as a gTLD, with the first strings going live at the end of 2009. ICANN expects around 500 applications covering extensions such as brand names (.google), generic words (.search), and geographic names (.berlin).

The filing fee is currently set at $185,000 (additional charges may apply, such as a $50,000 payment for an "Extended Review" after rejection in certain circumstances). The amount of any fee that may be refundable is under review by ICANN. Of course, additional charges will be incurred in running the registry for matters like establishing policies for registration of domains, taking steps to ensure security and stability, and for annual renewal of ownership with ICANN. The applicant for a new gTLD will need to demonstrate the financial and technological capacity to own and run a new registry. Companies who already run registries may be valuable back-end partners to brand owners seeking to own and run gTLDs.

Issues for Brand Owners

A brand owner is well advised to plan a strategy for the new gTLD process as soon as possible. The owner may want to apply for a gTLD for its main brand, to serve as a commercial platform or even to promote authentication and security for its online users. Taking no action risks permanent string preclusion for the brand.

Companies or organizations may want to apply for generic terms to control and exploit in their industries or communities.

Brand owners must also consider whether they will seek to own domains under the new gTLDs that are granted to others, either to proactively market them, or to defensively hold them.

Finally, brand owners will need to monitor this new space to learn of any objectionable applications for gTLDs, or for any domains registered under them, that may pose a threat to the brand or cause consumer confusion. While ICANN will do its own string review to determine whether the proposed string is confusingly similar to existing strings, or to other applied-for strings, ICANN will not be reviewing the trademark registries around the world to analyze whether a string is confusingly similar to any registered trademark. It will be up to the brand owner to lodge a formal objection with an approved dispute resolution provider if ICANN approves an applied-for string that is likely to cause consumer confusion with the brand.

ICANN is taking public comments through December 8, 2008, on its draft Proposal. See http://www.icann.org/en/topics/new-gtlds/comments-en.htm. A second comment period is being contemplated.