Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Registering Your Trademark with the Trademark Clearinghouse – Is Your House in Order?

By Nicole M. Meyer

“It’s happening – the biggest change to the Internet since its inception” is how the president of ICANN’s Generic Domains Division has described the new gTLD Program being implemented by The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and rightfully so. The new program will result in the expansion of available generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs), such as .COM, .NET or .ORG, from the list of 22 that we’ve all become familiar with through the years, to a list of possibly 1,400 generic Top-Level Domains.

On October 23, 2013, the first new gTLDs were “delegated”. This means they were introduced into the Internet’s “Root Zone”, the central authoritative database for the Internet. As a result, the domain name Registries, the organizations approved to operate these and other soon-to-be-delegated gTLDs, can execute the final processes required to make their domain names available to Internet users. ICANN claims that the purpose of this unprecedented expansion of domain name extensions is to enhance competition, innovation and choice in the Domain Name space, providing a wider variety of organizations, communities and brands new ways to communicate with their audiences. As available real estate in the “.com” territory has become increasingly scarce, it is hoped that the new gTLDs will provide additional space for entities and individuals to set up an online presence. While it is true that virtually every two or three letter combination seems to have already been registered in the “.com” Top-Level Domain, this explosion of new generic top-level domains also means big bucks for domain name registrars and additional costs for trademark owners who properly protect their marks.

While 4 new gTLDs were delegated in October, the delegation has been a rolling process, with new generic Top-Level Domains being released in November, December and January. Below are just a few of some the gTLDs that have successfully completed the process. The list will continue to be expanded as the measured rollout of the new gTLDs progresses over the coming years:

.equipment  .kitchen
.diamonds  .bike
.shoes   .technology
.enterprises  .gallery
.education  .graphics
.ceo   .ventures

As the new gTLD program is rolled out, many trademark owners are wisely looking for ways to protect their brands from being registered by third parties as domain names in the new gTLD space without their knowledge or consent. In view of the rapidly changing gTLD landscape, owners need to be aware of how to protect their marks, sooner rather than later.

What Does All This Mean for Brand Owners?

Over the past year, there has been significant discussion and concern in the legal community regarding the potential for trademark infringement by third parties seeking to register domain names that incorporate the brands of others under these newly released gTLDs.

In light of the potential for infringement, ICANN has established certain mechanisms for the new gTLD program in order to try and protect the rights of brand owners. The main tool for doing so is the Trademark Clearinghouse (TMCH), an entity created by ICANN with which trademark owners can register their marks in advance of the new gTLD launches.

Brand owners who register their trademarks with the TMCH can take advantage of a priority, or “sunrise”, period during which they are entitled to register domain names that are identical to their marks, before registration opens to the general public. In addition, the TMCH provides the brand owner with automatic notification of any third-party attempts to register domain names that are identical to their marks, enabling the mark owner to then take appropriate legal action. To be clear, this mechanism does not stop third-parties from registering domain names identical to marks registered with the TMCH, but does notify the brand owner, or its representative, of such registration. These devices provide brand owners with help against cyber squatters seeking to register infringing domain names under the new gTLDs.

Registration of a trademark with the TMCH is available for registered trademarks, marks protected by statute or treaty, or court-validated marks. Registration is also available for any other marks protectable under the new gTLD registry’s policies and that meet the eligibility requirements of the TMCH. Registration with the TMCH is encouraged for brand owners in order to combat infringement of their brands in cyberspace and registration costs currently are $150 per mark for a one-year term of registration, $435 for a three-year term, and $725 for a five-year term. Such registration with the TMCH does not include fees that will be charged by the new gTLD registrars to register domain names during the “sunrise” or general public registration periods.

The biggest change to the Internet since its inception is happening now…make sure your marks are protected!