Tech Industry

Trademark owners could get a leg up on domains

Owners of registered trademarks will be offered an exclusive 90-day period to register new domain names--before any other parties may apply--under a proposal that has a high likelihood of being adopted by Internet authorities.

Owners of registered trademarks will be offered an exclusive 90-day period to register new domain names--before any other parties may apply--under a proposal that has a high likelihood of being adopted by Internet authorities.

The proposal was written by a new consortium of 19 domain name registrars. The group includes the three largest registrars--Network Solutions, Register.com and Tucows--as well as 16 smaller companies.

The illustrious membership of the new consortium, Afilias, gives the proposal a strong chance of being selected by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), an Internet coordinating body.

But John Kane, the head of marketing for Afilias, says the consortium's proposal--which seeks approval for names ending in ".info," ".site" and ".web"--has no inside track over other applicants.

"We've had no conversations with anyone at ICANN," Kane said in an interview.

ICANN is in a self-imposed "no comment" period during which it declines to discuss publicly any proposals that arrived by its Oct. 2 deadline.

More than 40 applicants have submitted proposals asking ICANN to let them offer names other than the ".com," ".net" and ".org" suffixes.

The proposal from Afilias--perhaps because of its high profile--has raised howls of complaint from other applicants.

The proposal offers to give trademark owners the first choice of any new names for a 60-day "sunrise" period, followed by a 30-day "quiet" period. Other companies could not apply for new names until after the initial 90 days.

Some applicants see this as an unfair bargaining device as well as a bad policy.

The problem is that almost every common word in the English language is already a registered trademark in one or more countries. There are more than 1 million registered trademarks in the United States alone.

The trademark search engine of the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office lists more than 3,500 registered or pending trademarks that involve some variation of the word "United," for example.

Many such trademarks cover a string of words, such as "United Van Lines."

But the trademark office has recognized numerous trademarks that consist of a single common word. For instance, registered trademark #0676462 was issued in 1959 to United Airlines for the word "United," without any other words. Thousands of such examples abound.

Some applicants say smaller businesses and start-ups would suffer if long-established businesses can claim all the good new names first.

A competing proposal by NameSpace says, "There is no need for a special 'sunrise' period to give advantage to existing domain holders and those with famous trademarks."

Owners of trademarks currently benefit from a 1-year-old ICANN domain name policy. This policy gives trademark owners the ability, in many cases, to take ".com," ".net" and ".org" names away from similarly named, legitimate companies that may have a state trademark but never applied for a federal trademark.

The Afilias proposal, if accepted by ICANN, could result in thousands of new names being claimed by large companies that already own several ".com," ".net" and ".org" variations.

Afilias' Kane says under the consortium's proposal, trademark owners could register "as many (names) as they have trademarks for."

If one company, such as United Airlines, could obtain several new names--United.info, United.site, United.web--today's shortage of good Internet names would not be eased.

Fairer procedures are easy to design. A policy of "one new name per verified customer" could be enforced during a brief initial period. People who tried to register the same new name would be assigned one of their top choices via a computerized lottery.

ICANN's application guidelines, however, do not require an equitable distribution of new names. Its board's final decision, expected in November, may lock into place some form of preferential treatment.

Consumer advocate Brian Livingston appears at CNET News.com every Friday. Do you know of a problem affecting consumers? Send info to tips@BrianLivingston.com. He'll send you a book of high-tech secrets free if you're the first to submit a tip he prints.