Who Owns the Alphabet?

A friend of mine and I were watching television last weekend when that "Whazzup" beer commercial came on. Like millions of other viewers, we laughed about the amazing fortune of a few guys from Philly turning a common phrase like "What's up?" into a cultural icon. "I wonder if there's a Web site for that?" my friend asked. And with that, we turned off the TV and turned on the PC.

"Imagine if we registered that name?" my friend mused as the machine booted up. "I bet we can sell it back to the beer company for millions!"

Within minutes, we were browsing www.register.com, a site that reserves Internet names. Whazup.com was taken. So was Whazzup, Whazzzup, and even Whazzzzup. As of this writing, you need five z's to get a unique dot-com name out of "What's Up." So, whazzzzzup with that?

Like settlers who tamed the frontier when the West was young, people are flocking to sites like register.com to stake claims in cyberspace on common phrases and acronyms, like "Be there or be square" (taken) and "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" (also, incredibly, taken). But unlike the 19th century's pioneer settlers who paid for their real estate with their life savings and sometimes their lives, today's virtual-estate land grab is cheap and painless: $70 and a few mouse clicks will get you a name like "givealittlegetalot.com" (still available -- for now).

If you're thinking of registering an internet name for your company's acronym, better act fast. Many of the single-letter domain names, like a.com, are reserved, and the few that aren't are long gone. Two-letter acronyms? All taken. Three-letter acronyms? Most, if not all, are gone.

Of course nobody's rushing to develop all these registered names into actual Web sites or Internet services. Many folks, maybe even most, are opportunistically reserving them, on the possibility that you might someday want them badly enough to pony up some serious cash to get them. How much? Check out monica.com, blatantly offered for sale at 10 grand.

You have to respect a guy with enough foresight to grab an established trademark, like Coke or Pepsi, and hold it for ransom on the Internet, right? Of course, all that low-hanging fruit has been picked. Nothing left to do now but randomly register names, then sell them later to people who subsequently come up with business ideas that match them. I guess a guy can make an easy buck on "Internet Name Futures."

The more I think about this, the more icky I feel (icky.com is taken, so is yucky.com). How could the Internet end up mired in such a disgusting state of affairs ("mired," "disgusting," and "state of affairs" are all taken)?

What works for a geek (geek.com is taken, of course) does not necessarily work for the public at large. The Internet's Domain Name System (DNS) was designed as a communications protocol, and was never intended as a registry for intellectual property. As the Internet scaled up from thousands to millions of users during the 1990s, its honor-based, informal system for managing DNS names was, simply, scaled up to handle increased demand. It never retooled to deal with the legal, moral, and ethical issues now being raised.

But this get-rich-quick (sorry, that phrase is taken) boom may be nearing an end. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN, www.icann.org) recently updated its dispute policies, putting teeth into its procedures for reclaiming trademarked domain names on behalf of lawful and rightful owners. Newly adopted ICANN dispute procedures should soon offer similar recourse for the owners of new trademarks, even when they're registered after a similar domain name.

Beyond this, ICANN's reluctance to expand the list of today's global top-level domains (gTLDs) -- .COM, .NET, and .ORG -- might soon be coming to an end. Most experts now agree that today's name servers can handle it, and murkier issues related to trademarks are, apparently, finally being resolved.

By the way, murky.com is taken, but murkier.com is still available. --Al Cini is a senior consultant with Computer Methods Corp. (Marlton, N.J.) specializing in systems and network integration. Contact him at al.cini@computermethods.com.