What’s in a Domain Name?

NEW YORK – A name is just a sound or sequence of letters. It carries no value or meaning other than as a pointer to something in people's minds – a concept, a person, a brand, or a particular thing or individual.

In modern economies, people distinguish between generic words, which refer to concepts or a set of individual things (a certain kind of fruit, for example), and trademarks, which refer to specific goods or services around which someone has built value. By law, actual words can’t be trademarks, but specific arrangements of words – such as Evernote or Apple Computer – can be protected.

The Internet’s domain-name system (DNS) was formalized in the late 1990’s by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). I was ICANN’s founding chairman, and we more or less followed the rules of trademarks, with an overlay of “first come, first served.” If you could show that you owned a trademark, you could get the “.com” domain for that name, unless someone else with a similar claim had gotten there first. (The whole story is more complex, but too long to go into here.)

Our mission was to create competition for Network Solutions, the monopoly player at the time, but we did so only in part. Network Solutions retained control of the .com registry, whereas we created a competitive market for the reseller business whereby registrars sold names directly to users.