Intellectual Property Bulletin - Spring 2013: Revisiting Generic Top-Level Domains

Fenwick & West LLP

As expected, there has been great initial interest in generating the new generic top-level domains, or gTLDs, that are poised to add variety to the conventional .com, .org, and .net domains that have dominated the Internet for decades. ICANN, the agency architecting the domain system, reports that as of June 7, 2013, it had approved 638 of the new gTLDs. Yet, at the same time, some companies are choosing to abandon their gTLD applications rather than pioneer this new area. While some might cite the significant economic cost and management effort in migrating business plans beyond the .com world, there may be something more fundamental going on.

In short, the value of domains to businesses and other organizations may have peaked; and, in particular, the value of gTLDs may not be nearly what was anticipated in the years leading up to the gTLD introduction. Few would doubt that no matter how many gTLDs go live, .com will remain king. Prior challengers such as .pro and .mobi have failed to displace the venerable .com, and there is no reason to think any new domain will fare better.

More fundamentally, however, the future is not in domain names in any event. Few companies still feel the need to lay out their website URLs in great detail in their marketing materials. While ads in the late 1990s may have prominently displayed http://www.companyname/products to show how “internet-age” the company was, in 2013 most companies assume their customer base is facile in finding the company’s web presence, and most companies have gone to great expense to ensure that search engines will drive customers to their site quickly and painlessly. The future is not in domain names for another reason, as well—the future is apps. Over a billion people currently use smartphones, and anyone with a smartphone has less and less need to access the Internet, via URL or otherwise. While apps can be obtained via websites, they often are downloaded via stores (which themselves are apps), QR codes, messaging apps, or otherwise. By one estimate, 70 billion apps will be downloaded in 2013, and the number of offerings available via Apple’s App Store or Google Play is well over one million.

Direct access to the Internet using the domain system may fast be becoming the AM radio of the information age. The AM system was tolerated until better alternatives, such as FM, became available, giving the user more control and providing a more enjoyable overall experience. We should see, before too long, whether the gTLD expansion of the domain space will serve only to hasten the demise of the domain system. Once the domain space is cluttered with a thousand or more gTLDs, if the result is disinformation, misinformation, and fraud, consumers may rush even more quickly to a platform that they believe gives them more control and less noise.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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