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The Future Of Domain Names

  |  December 15, 1999   |  Comments

'Tis the season! Love and peace, joy and goodwill towards all abound. It's that most wonderful time of the year when people turn away from hate and strife and focus on giving gifts, righting old wrongs, and sharing their joy unless, apparently, you're in the online toy industry. eToys has given the big "Bah Humbug!" to European art group etoy, taking them to court for trademark infringement. But Sean's steamed about the larger issue: What are we going to do about domain names?

'Tis the season! Love and peace, joy and goodwill towards all abound. It's that most wonderful time of the year when people turn away from hate and strife and focus on giving gifts, righting old wrongs, and sharing their joy...

... unless, apparently, you're in the online toy industry.

If you've been following the industry news lately, you may know about the big "Bah Humbug!" eToys has given the European art group etoy, taking them to court for trademark infringement. And even though the collective registered etoy.com in October 1995 (a full two years before eToys registered its domain name in November 1997), a California state court has ordered that etoy must take down its web site. That's the ol' Christmas spirit!

Earlier this year, eToys offered the group approximately US$500,000 for the name, an offer that was refused by the group. And with good reason they felt that having operated as etoy for over four years, taking away their domain name effectively erases them off the web, a major problem for a group that uses the web as a central part of its operations.

But it wasn't the refusal of the offer that touched off the war apparently eToys has been receiving complaints from customers who inadvertently found their way to etoy and were offended by what they saw there.

As you can imagine, the injunction has touched off a firestorm of controversy on the Net. Over 20 anti-eToys sites have cropped up carrying news and opinion about the battle, (Toywar and EvilToy and groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have weighed in condemning the ruling. EToys has been inundated by email calling for a boycott. Usenet is abuzz with news.

Personally, I'm on the side of etoy. They had the name first, they aren't competing in the same space, and frankly, it's just too bad that eToys didn't do enough research before they picked their name to realize that this was going to be a problem.

But I'm really steamed about the larger issue: What are we going to do about domain names? Right now, the domain name system is a mess. From the beginning of the commercialization of the web, people have been duking it out over who's got the rights to what name.

Trademark law has been some help you and me never had a good reason to register CocaCola.com but a law that was set up to deal with the realities of the analog age seems woefully inadequate to deal with the current situation.

Think about it: How many good ideas have been squashed because someone couldn't get a good dot-com address? And how many bad ideas have been foisted on us by people who managed to register a particularly juicy name before anybody else thought of it? How many perfectly legitimate companies with established trademarks have had to waste time and money to scrap over the most limited resource in cyberspace?

I'd venture a guess that nearly every single word in the English language has a dot-com at the end of it somewhere. Whether it's some cybersquatter hoping that kholrabi.com will someday pique the interest of a vegetable farmer, or United Van Lines and United Airlines fighting over who's got the rights to united.com, the domain name issue has moved beyond being an academic argument to being one that can seriously effect businesses.

Online, your site is your brand, and your domain name is the one way that people are going to find you. If it's not connected to your name or isn't particularly memorable or easy to spell (check out http://www.amazom.com/ some time to see how somebody can cash in on typos), you're in trouble.

And with the proliferation of sites out there and the dot-clutter we're being barraged with this Christmas season, owning the right domain name can mean the difference between life and death for a struggling online business.

So, what can we do about it? At this point, not much. Groups like ICANN, headed by Esther Dyson are trying to make some sense of the mess, and we all know about the various proposals out there for adding new top-level domains such as .biz, .web, .nom, etc., but none of these have come to pass yet.

There are some other ideas out there that if you're going to market in the web space, you should know. First and foremost, RealNames has been working on keyword-based solutions for the past couple of years. In its scheme (currently implemented in AltaVista, the Go Network, About.com, and Internet Explorer), URLs are linked to Internet Keywords that can stand in for any address, no matter how long. For instance, if you were interested in finding out about a Mercury Cougar, you could just type "Mercury Cougar" into your browser, and you'd be transported to the page at http://www.mercuryvehicles.com/coug/.

It sounds wonderful, but it does have its problems, mainly in that there's still only so many words in the language. Generic words are particularly problematic (who owns the keyword "Cars"?), but RealNames is currently working on fixes.

Other keyword initiatives are in the works Keyword.com is one example of another company in the keyword game but none have come up with a better solution.

What is the future going to hold for domain names? I don't know, but you can be sure that if the Net's going to flourish in the future, the situation is going to have to be rectified.

Do we move to permanent addresses similar to a coordinate or street address system? Do we move to a smart system that helps us locate brands in the context of what we're looking for? Do we abandon the whole name situation altogether and take a giant leap backwards into numbers? Should we investigate systems that use a combination of keywords and brand names? Do we just hide our heads in the sand and keep stretching the old system out until it breaks?

Who knows? The market's too young, and there's too much growth for the limited system to be useful in the future. And as new devices start getting connected to the web cellphones, car systems, VCRs, TVs, and stereos not all of them are going to come equipped with keyboards to enter in those pesky names.

As we continue to market and build brands over the coming years, we'd better look for a new way of dealing with the domain name issue. As they say in real estate, "location is everything." We're running out of locations.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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