Amanda Carpenter is a JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School. Many thanks to Bijan Soleymani, a M. Eng Candidate at McGill University.
[Note: This article includes non-Latin characters (such as Chinese language characters). The ability to view such text will depend on your internet browser settings.]
IDNs vs Internationalized TLDS = fully vs partly Internationalized domains
Internationalized domain names (IDNs) (eg: 中文.cn) are not new. They have been available since as early as July 2003 for Japan (.jp). What is new is the introduction of Internationalized Top-Level-Domains (TLDs). Up until now all IDNs were only partly internationalized or non-Latin, because the final part the TLD was always ASCII or Latin. The TLD is the final .com, .ca, .cn, .jp, etc. So what is being introduced are new final endings, potentially domains in 。中国 (literally .china in Chinese characters) instead of .cn (in Latin script).
Popularity of Partly Internationalized Domains
Partly internationalized domain names haven’t really caught on yet. In China they make up about 10% of all domain names. In Japan none of the top 1000 domains are IDNs. It is interesting to consider why this could be. Mainly it is a question of software support and the way in which IDNs are implemented. Instead of upgrading the Domain Name Service (DNS), the system of servers that map domain names such as www.google.ca to IP addresses which can be used to send and receive information on the internet, to support the new characters it was decided to have all the users’ software convert the new characters to a unique Latin form and then “resolve” or map that Latin domain name to an IP. For example 中文.com (chinese.com) would become xn--fiq228c.com, 中文 becomes fiq228c, com is still com, and xn-- is added to indicate it is an international domain (to avoid conflict in case fiq228c.com already exists as a non-internationalized domain). What this means is that if a user with an email address bob@中文 .com sends an email to someone in the US whose software doesn’t support this scheme that US user might firstname.lastname@example.org. So in order to avoid this the Chinese user may prefer to use a domain like chinese.com (in Latin script) instead of 中文.com (in Chinese characters).
The new TLDs are independent of the old TLDs
For a while it was suggested that the new internationalized TLDs could simply be shortcuts to the already existing TLDs. For example 。中国 would map to .cn, .한국 to .kr, and so forth. This would have meant that 中文。中国 would have been the same domain as 中文.cn and www. 中文.中国 would lead to the same website as www.中文.cn. However, what is being proposed is new completely independent TLDs. In some countries the Latin TLD is reserved for Latin-only domains. This is the case with Iran and .ir. If an Iranian wishes to register an IDN they need to do so under the new .ایران (.iran) TLD. In this way there is no confusion between news.ir and اخبار .ایران. But in some cases this can lead to conflict. For example in countries like China where a user can register 中文.cn, and another unrelated user can register 中文。中国 this could confuse users. What happens if the user simply types 中文 into their browser, which page would/should be loaded?
What does this mean for trademark owners?
In the end what this means for trademark owners and website operators is that they now have a new piece of Internet real-estate to claim. This can be a great thing for them. For example, Google can have google.com map to their main English language website, have 谷歌.cn map to the English language version of their Chinese website and 谷歌。中国 map to the Chinese language version of their Chinese website. On the other hand, it could be a problem if there is no procedure to allow trademark owners precedence in registering domains for trademarks that they own/control, or to allow them to reclaim domains that infringe their trademarks. Of course this problem of claiming domains that involve one’s trademarks is nothing new. Many large companies that got into the Internet game later on have had to deal with cyber-squatters (people who register famous and/or trademarked domains for the sole purpose of reselling them later on) or organizations legitimately operating under the same or similar name or having a similar mark or brand in another field. In the case of cybersquatters, the rightful owners have generally been able to reclaim ownership of the domains in question.