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Domain names: FAQ

This guide is based on UK law. It was last updated in March 2008.

1. What is a domain name?

A domain name is part of an internet address which locates a designated space on the internet. The domain name is merely a more memorable form of the unique alphanumeric number, such as 212.100.236.61, which identifies that location on the internet.  People or organisations like to register the space with the domain name that corresponds to their own name, their trading name, or some other name that is linked to them or what they do.

For example the internet address www.pinsentmasons.com locates a space on the internet where we at the law firm Pinsent Masons have located information relating to our business.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) manages internet space and has enabled people to register domain names in certain areas of that space.  The areas are located by the domain name.  ICANN have notionally broken up the domain space into what are called top level domains (or "tld" e.g. .com, .org, .uk etc…) and given third party registries the ability to register this particular internet space to end users.

Some registries have chosen to subdivide their designated internet space further.  Second level domains (e.g. .co.uk, .org.uk and .me.uk) are therefore areas of the internet top level domain .uk, which are subdivided by Nominet (the registry for .uk domain names) with the intention of them being used to separate out company registrations from not for profit organisations and individuals.

Third and fourth level domain names would sit at levels below this further and gain further divide the the domain name owner's internet space.  This is often used by the domain name owner to help them manage their web content .e.g. news.bbc.co.uk and sport.bbc.co.uk are both used by the BBC to manage their web content relating to news and sport.

2. What makes up a domain name?

A domain name is made up of component parts.  The ".com" part of the domain name is called the suffix. Originally, the choice of suffix was intended to indicate the purpose of the organisation or entity. For instance .com often was intended to indicate a commercial organisation; and .org a non-profit organisation or charity.  As the internet has evolved and the registration requirements for these suffixes has been open, this as has not been strictly followed.

The "pinsentmasons" part of the domain name defines the organisation or entity and is called the string.

Together the combination of suffix and string, which constitutes the domain name, must be unique on the internet.

The management of domain names is overseen by ICANN. It accredits numerous registries with whom domain names are registered.  For example Network Solutions and Nominet have been given the responsibility for managing the assignment of .com and .uk domain names respectively.

Some suffixes are commonly used to designate the geographic origin of the domain name holder, eg .uk (UK), .fr (France) or .de (Germany).  Each one (called a country code top level domain name or ccTLD), is managed by a Registry and many Registries restrict the distribution of domain names to entities that can demonstrate that they operate a business in or own trade mark covering that country.  Registration of ccTLDs are also common with international and multi-jurisdictional business.

3. Where does a domain name go?

An internet address such as www.pinsentmasons.com actually points to an alphanumeric address, in this case 212.100.236.61. This address is called the Internet Protocol, or IP address. Rather like a telephone number, it is unique.

IP addresses are allocated by ICANN. To make the address more user-friendly the IP address is twinned with a real address such as www.pinsentmasons.com which is called the domain name.

4. What is ICANN?

ICANN was formed in November 1998 as a non-profit, private sector policy making body.

ICANN does not run or control the internet but instead was set up to facilitate and manage the central coordination of specific technical managerial and policy development tasks. Two of the key functions of ICANN are to allocate IP address space and to manage the domain name system.

5. How do I register a domain name?

You need to visit an ICANN- accredited registrar. There are many. In the UK, you could try, for example, easily.co.uk, 1&1 Internet or for corporate domain name registrations and portfolio management CSC corporate domains.

The registrar then feeds your registration into the registry. There is only one registry for each top level domain, because only one registry can maintain a database of all registrations. 

For a number of generic Top Level Domains or gTLD such as .com and .net the registry is Network Solutions in the US.

For .uk names, the registry is Nominet, a British not-for-profit organisation.

6. Are there any restrictions on what name I may register?

Domain names are generally registered on a first-come, first-served basis. Provided a name is not already registered and comprises a maximum of 64 letters and hyphens, it can probably be registered. However, registrations that conflict with existing trade marks can be taken before a dispute resolution body or a court by the trade mark holder and may be cancelled or transferred.

7. What do I do if someone already has the domain name that I want or someone wants my domain name?

ICANN has a Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy for domain names ("UDRP") that has applied since January 2000 and that has been adopted by a large number of registries including Network Solutions so that it covers most generic top level domain name (gTLD) and some country code top level domain name registrations. The Policy is mandatory for all registrars and is automatically incorporated into the top level domain name registration agreements between registrars and end users who want to register a domain name with these suffixes.

The UDRP sets out a special administrative procedure to resolve disputes, often being triggered by so-called cybersquatting.

Among the arbitration groups accredited by ICANN to implement the UDRP are the following:

1. the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO);
2. the National Arbitration Forum (NAF);
3. the Asian Domain Name Dispute Resolution Centre (ADNDRC).

For .uk names, Nominet applies a different, but similar, dispute resolution policy.

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