A domain name, most commonly, is a Web site's address expressed in an easily recognized way, as in yourname.com. Anybody can obtain a domain name for a site, from multinational companies to grade-school children.
Problems arise when individuals obtain domain names similar to trademarked business names. In the past, cybersquatters would buy and sit on these names in hope of selling them for big bucks when companies later created Web sites. Regulations now prevent this, but they haven't stopped squabbles.
Internet toy retailer eToys.com offered to buy the domain name of Swiss artists' collective Etoy.com. When Etoy declined, eToys.com went to court. Similarly, e-Cards.com called in the lawyers against Ecards.com.
Pop star Madonna got hot under her collar when a New Jersey porn merchant bought the domain name madonna.com from a bulk domain-name registrar then used it for a porn site. The New Jersey man also registered the names gmsucks.com, twasucks.com and similar names related to large companies.
NO JOKING MATTER
According to the rules of the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the non-profit corporation responsible for domain-name management, a trademark owner can confiscate a domain name that someone else is using "in bad faith." This means holding it "primarily for the purpose of selling" it to a trademark holder.
A free-speech issue arises with bona fide parody sites. Individuals critical of companies or their products have created Web sites expressing their views, often giving their sites monikers along the lines of companynamesucks.com.
Proactively, some companies have registered these names themselves. Verizon Communications, the company created from the merger of Bell Atlantic and GTE, owns verizonsucks.com.
In response, one parodist registered the domain name verizonreallysucks.com, which got the attention of Verizon's lawyers. Typically when confronted by a well-financed legal team, parodists throw in the towel.
In the above case, the parodist registered the domain name verizonshouldspendmoretime
Verizon gave up.
Despite silliness such as this, domain names are serious business. Recently mortgage.com, a victim of the dot-com doldrums, sold its domain name for $1.8 million. Earlier, business.com sold for a hefty $7.5 million. The typical cost of buying a domain name already owned by someone else is several thousand dollars.
To facilitate the sale of domain names, Register.com, a reseller of Internet domain names, just launched a service that lets you bid for any of the 20 million names already taken. The company estimates that half of domain names are unused by their owners, often overcautious companies that register hundreds of variations of their corporate name.
To open up the domain-name space, ICANN recently approved seven new top-level domain names. Now, instead of your dot-com ending with ".com," it can end with ".biz." Other choices, with undoubtedly many more to come, are ".aero" for airline businesses, ".coop" for co-ops, ".pro" for professionals such as doctors and lawyers, ".museum" for museums, ".name," for personal sites and ".info" for anybody.
Becoming master of your domain also has gotten easier. To use a domain name, you typically had to search for one not already in use then pay Network Solutions $35 per year in registration fees. Other registrars emerged a year and half ago offering other packagesócheck out RegSelect (www.regselect.com) for details on the most popular.
New services have sprouted that now offer domain-name use for free. In exchange, NameZero.com (www.namezero.com) and Name Demo.com (www.namedemo.com) place ads on your site. Domain Zero.com (www.domainzero.com) e-mails you ads, leaving your site unscathed.
I've been using DomainZero.com for a few months for a site about an interest of mine, collecting early American "Draped Bust" coins. Draped Busts, now with the domain name draped-busts.com, lets me share this interest with anyone interested, which was the original purpose of the Web and is still one of its best features.
Despite the current hullabaloo over domain names, some think catchy names are overrated, pointing to the dot-coms that paid large sums for names but failed anyway. What's more, voice recognition and other technologies may make domain names far less important in the future.
Still, for any Web site today, a good domain name can be a powerful way to get people through your virtual door.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or http://members.home.net/reidgold.