domain.com Your good name means success or failure on the World Wide Web

October 12, 1998|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

What's in a name?

Everything, if the name starts with "www." A well-chosen Internet address can mean the difference between fame and obscurity, riches and poverty. It's not surprising that some players have gone overboard, snapping up the rights to recognizable names and hiring armies of lawyers if someone else's address poaches on their turf.

"Somebody's registered 'god,' somebody's registered 'heaven' and 'hell,' all the letters of the alphabet , " says Ellen Rony, co-author of "The Domain Name Handbook: High Stakes and Strategies in Cyberspace."

"It really has gotten ridiculous."

Until now, the eye of this name's-the-game hurricane has been Network Solutions Inc. of Herndon, Va. Since 1992, the company has held an exclusive contract with the federal government to register and manage Internet addresses ending in .com, .net, .edu, and .org, also known as "domain names."

But last week the federal government took the final step in privatizing the Net by agreeing to hand over control to a new, international, nonprofit organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. The changeover will start in March.

The organization, whose directors will include members from other countries, will decide how domain names will be managed and sold. This could have a profound impact on anyone who owns - or wants to own - a catchy Internet address such as www.time.com.

These addresses have become hot items as the Internet has evolved from an obscure vehicle for scholars and the military into a mass medium of commerce. Last year, more than $2 billion changed hands over the World Wide Web. Within two years, some analysts project, Net commerce could be worth as much as $35 billion.

In the early days of the Web, Network Solutions fielded only 200 domain name requests a month. When two applicants wanted the same name, a rare occurrence, the company usually applied a first-come, first-served policy.

Now the firm handles more than 100,000 requests per month, and the once-cozy world of the Internet has become a competitive jungle. Web users ranging from schoolchildren to large corporations corporations are jockeying for the rights increasingly scarce and valuable names - especially those ending in .com (for commercial sites).

"Good names with .com are almost impossible to get. They'r like vanity plates. Everybody wants them," says Don Heath, president of the Internet Society in Reston, Va.

Internic has received 3,600 complaint letters and has bee named in 42 lawsuits, although the company says it has never had to pay damages.

But mobody is immune from the legal saber rattling. Just as 12-year-old Christopher "Pokey" Van Allen.

For his birthday, Pokey's parents bought their son his ow Internet address, www.pokey.org, which the Allentown, Pa. lad used for a Web page that tells the world about his hobbies and favorite television shows, such as "South Park."

Not long afterward, the youth received an unfriendly letter fro the Prema Toy Co. It turned out that Pokey was was also the name of Prema's popular toy horse. Prema's attorneys charged Pokey the Boy with diluting the trademark for Pokey the Horse.

Pokey Van Allen received thousands of e-mail messages i support of his claim - including a letter from the equine Pokey's 76-year-old creator. The company backed down and offered to let Van Allen use the name under a royalty-free license.

In response to these kinds of issues, trademark law has change to accommodate the Internet. Three years ago, the Trademark Act of 1946 was amended to include domain names. So Internic's old first come, first served policy doesn't apply to names found to be claim jumping on an established trademark. Under the new law, for example, no one no one could register www.mcdonalds.com but the owner of the Golden Arches.

Domain names have also given rise to unlikely professions - an a whole new real-estate industry on the Web. On one hand, there are "cybersquatters," speculators who buy and hoard domain names such as www.computer.com or www.winelist.com, hoping to sell them for a profit. On the other, there are are bounty hunters, paid to track down and legally acquire the rights to domain names that businesses want. There are domain name brokers and auctioneers who, like real-life real estate agents, manage the buying and selling of domain names.

While most domain names trade for anywhere from a fe hundred to a few thousand dollars, a few are worth big money. Compaq Computer Corp., which owns the popular Alta Vista Internet search engine, reportedly paid a record $3.35 million to a 37-year-old San Jose business man for the rights to altavista.com. The search engine has long been found at www.altavista.digital.com, which more than a few users have had trouble finding.

To drive traffic to their Web sites, some entrepreneurs will tr anything. A common tactic: register an Internet addresses that sound like a famous company, person or product.

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