What's in a (Domain) Name?

Seems as if everybody who's anybody has his/her own domain these days. A recent Associated Press article reprinted in many newspapers and online venues recounts how the latest trend is for parents to reserve domain names for their babies soon after they're born - or even before - to ensure that the name won't be snatched up before the child is old enough to want it.

One report stated that Angelina Jolie had reserved several variations of domain names for her new daughter within hours of the birth.

That might seem a little extreme, but if you happen to become well known, owning the domain named after you can become important. Those of us with fairly distinctive names usually don't have much trouble getting the domain we want (I didn't have to compete with anyone else for www.debshinder.com), but what if your name is John Jones or Mary Smith? Things might get a tad more complicated.

For celebrities, the issue can be even more perplexing. In a number of cases, fans have registered the names of famous folks as domains before the owner of the name got around to it. Many of these are fan sites, but what if the person who snags your domain namesake doesn't like you and uses the site to post derogatory information about you?

Then there are the "cybersquatters" who buy up domain names with no intention of actually putting up web sites, but with the hope that those who do want sites with those names will pay dearly for them. Some people have made substantial amounts of money reselling domain names in this manner. Opponents of the practice accuse them of holding the names hostage. The squatters argue that they are just legally buying something that's up for sale and then legally selling what they own to someone else - the same thing any retailer does. It can be a lucrative business. Business.com sold for somewhere between $7 million and $8 million, depending on which report you read, and sex.com is reported to have gone for 11 million euros, which translates to almost 15 million U.S. dollars.

Popular names are sometimes put up for auction. Last January, names such as hillaryrodhamclinton.mobi and duncanhunterforpresident.us were announced as available for public auction.

Not surprisingly, there have been many lawsuits filed over the ownership of domain names, especially in cases where the name is a trademark, as in the case of most celebrities. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) runs a domain name dispute resolution service that deals with many of these cases. According to their web site, they've handled 1425 cases in 2007 through the end of August.

Their policy labels registration of a domain name as being "in bad faith" if it's done primarily for the purpose of selling or renting it to the owner of a trademark or to a competitor of the owner, if you do it to disrupt the business of your competitor or if you use it to defraud web site visitors by making them think the site belongs to or is endorsed by the trademark owner.

How important is it to have your own domain, anyway? Your mom will probably be just as impressed by your web site at www.earthlink.com/bobsmith as she would be by www.bobsmith.com, but in certain fields - especially the tech biz and the entertainment industry, owning a "real" domain is expected. And with registration as low as $6.99/year, it's within the financial reach of almost anyone (of course, in order to make use of your registered name, you might need to pay a web hosting company or have a business-class Internet connection that allows you to host your own web server, or you may get free web hosting with your consumer-level Internet connection).

What about you? Do you have your own domain? If not, what's stopping you? Is your name already taken? Don't want a web site? Have a web site but see no need for your own domain? Should people be allowed to register domain names that are the names of other people? Should famous people be able to "take back" their domain names without paying? Or should domain names be registered strictly on a first come, first served basis and resold at whatever the market will bear? Would you reserve a domain name for your child, or is that just silly? Do you have more respect for a business person, author, or entertainer who has his/her own domain or does it not matter at all?