This year promises to be a revolutionary year for the internet. After years of being constrained by a limited number of domain names, businesses, organizations and individual registrants are set to gain access to a whole host of new online naming options. In the coming months, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is set to approve the launch of hundreds – potentially even thousands – of new generic top-level domain names (gTLDs), opening up a vast expanse of online real estate.

On June 20th 2011, ICANN’s board voted to end most of the restrictions on gTLDs, freeing up stakeholders to register domain name extensions of their choosing. Up until recently there were just 22 gTLDs – such as .com, .net, .org and .info – in existence, plus the new .xxx registry – meaning choice was severely limited. As more and more people have headed online, this has applied pressure on the domain name system, and there have been a lack of ‘simple’ naming options for new registrants. Launching new gTLDs means companies, public bodies, charities and other organisations will be able to create domain names which more closely match their purpose, without the need to invest hundreds of thousands – sometimes even millions – of dollars.

The use of non-Latin characters – such as Cyrillic, Arabic, Chinese – will also be allowed in gTLDs, meaning web users across the world will have greater variety of choice and more opportunities to build their brands online. In countries whose main language is not based on Latin script, this can help boost engagement levels with consumers. Firms will be able to create gTLDs using their own brand names, main activities or purpose – or even the name of the industry they are working in. Providing they pay ICANN’s $185,000 application fee and meet other regulatory criteria, parties can apply to register any gTLD of their choosing.

One potential issue this raises is the potential for new gTLDs to infringe on the intellectual property rights of another operator. With businesses and organizations around the world able to apply for gTLDs, it is possible there could be some crossover and duplication. Multiple parties may apply for the same gTLD – for example .sport, .film or .music – an issue which could create difficulties if they wish to use their main branding in the extension. The names of smaller companies in particular are likely to be repeated across the world. And larger companies often find themselves embroiled in intellectual property disputes, given the commercial significance of their brandings.

ICANN is expected to approve at least 1,000 gTLDs later this year, although some commentators expect this figure to be closer to 3,000.  The current application window closes on May 30th, but ICANN is planning to run further rounds in the future, giving more parties the opportunity to claim a particular domain registry. And with so many gTLDs likely to be launched, it is crucial that all parties take steps to ensure their brands are protected. Organizations need to have a strategy in place to quickly identify potentially infringing applications – irrespective of whether they have applied for a gTLD or not.

Businesses and organizations can use gTLD application list watch and monitoring services to make sure their brands do not become exposed. If a new domain registry is likely to have a negative impact on their existing branding, they need to know about it as soon as possible. Specialist monitors can search the list of gTLD applications – which is set to be published by ICANN in May – for the use of names or terms which may affect another party’s activities. Firms can be notified of any exact matches in third-party gTLD application strings, plus close variations, phonetic similarities and related industry terms. Weekly checks can be conducted, allowing the search provider to keep their clients up to date on the latest developments.

This can help ensure that businesses – where there is an appropriate case – benefit from the launch of gTLDs, without the risk of suffering brand damage. The internet economy is worth billions per year, and companies are increasingly active over the web. They want to reap the benefits of online activity, and increased domain name options, without increased exposure to risk.

Protecting your brands under the new gTLD regime
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