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Dot-Anything: What Web Domain Expansion Means for Hollywood

Illustration: Patrick Leger
Illustration: Patrick Leger

The industry braces for a 2012 change where anyone (with money) can turn your brand name into a domain.

Looking for photos of the queen of England? Go to Queen.com. Need a dating site? Try Kiss.com. But if it's rock 'n' roll you seek, it's best to do a Google search and figure out where the official sites for the bands Queen and Kiss reside.

Expect that extra step to disappear soon, though, as .com, .net and the other 20 generic top-level domains, or gTLDs, are about to get massive competition courtesy of a rules change that will allow just about any word to follow the dot in an Internet address. It's a shift that promises big implications for Hollywood.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, the nonprofit entity that governs domain names, says it will take applications for the new dot-anything gTLDs for 90 days, beginning Jan. 12.

Some already have announced intentions to grab .game and .sport. And, naturally, .music, .film and .movie are in play, which has the entertainment industry so nervous that the RIAA and MPAA have implored ICANN to rethink its scheme.

The industry contends that the system is fine as is, and adding thousands more gTLDs will require constant vigilance to protect brands. Transformers.com, for example, is in the hands of Hasbro, but the company could soon have to deal with transformers.toy, transformers.robot and who knows what else.

Not that anyone but Disney would have the nerve to register .disney or .espn, unless they crave a trademark lawsuit, but even generic words could present a problem: Think pirates.movie as a file-sharing site instead of a marketing vehicle for Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

"MPAA members remain highly skeptical of the need for or desirability of a plethora of new gTLDs," MPAA executive vp Fritz Attaway wrote in a July letter to ICANN.

ICANN, though, says Hollywood's concerns are overblown, in part because a hefty $185,000 application fee required for each proposed gTLD should weed out undesirables -- not to mention that approved applicants will have to shell out a $25,000 annual fee, and technical costs for what amounts to running a portion of the Internet could run as high as $1 million a year. There's also an approval process that takes about 18 months and includes an extensive background check. In the inevitable cases where more than one applicant is vying for a gTLD, ICANN will take into account endorsements from trusted sources. Everything being equal, the gTLD could simply go to the highest bidder. ICANN issued a 352-page guide that lays out the process and mechanism for objections.

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The application fee is high, says spokesman Brad White, because ICANN anticipates having to fight off expensive legal challenges. The organization will likely approve 1,000 new gTLDs before announcing another round of applications. "You don't want to just launch into something like this and break the Internet," says White. "We just don't see a need to limit it to 22 top-level domains anymore. We don't know how it will shake out. We just want to open up the marketplace."

So far, the person who has been most vocal about his desire to capture .music, .movie and .film is Constantine Roussos, a co-founder of domain management firm MyTLD.com, who has lobbied for industry support with assurances he'll use those gTLDs as "safe havens for entertainment consumption."

If his three January applications are accepted, he would collect about $100 a year from any website that uses .music, .film or .movie, but Roussos has promised to partner with studios and musicians to ensure they are the only ones given access to their brands. So, for example, he would only sell eagles.music to rock band the Eagles, and batman.movie would go to Warner Bros., home of the Caped Crusader franchise. This, he says, will make it easy for consumers to find official sites and for studios to avoid lengthy URLs such as ironmanmovie.marvel.com and hangovermovie.warnerbros.com.

"People want to know they're at an official site, especially when leaving their e-mail address or credit card number," says Roussos.

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He has competition for .movie and .film from DotMovie, a startup that has raised$5 million in seed money. The company didn't respond to requests for comment.

Hollywood is still planning its strategy -- studios could embrace the changes or merely play defense.

News Corp., for example, might acquire .fox or Disney could acquire .abc and just sit on them while they figure things out. There also are ways to lobby ICANN to place a stay on a registration so no one gets it, as the International Olympic Committee has temporarily suppressed .ioc. But ICANN says no entertainment company has pursued that route.

"There are a lot of creative things coming and a lot of chaotic things," says Antony Van Couvering, CEO of Minds + Machines, a company that specializes in TLD services, "and no one wants to tip off the competition. But this is a huge shift in how you recognize things on the Internet."