The US Patent and Trademark Office plans to allow domain name registries to get trademarks on their gTLDs.
Changes proposed this week seem to be limited to dot-brand gTLDs and would not appear to allow registries for generic strings — not even “closed” generics — to obtain trademarks.
But the rules are crafted in such a way that single-registrant dot-brands might be excluded.
Under existing USPTO policy, applications for trademarks that consist solely of a gTLD cannot be approved, because they don’t identify the source of goods and services.
If “.com” were a trademark, one might have to assume that the source of Amazon.com’s services was Verisign, which is plainly not the case.
But the new gTLD program has invited in hundreds of gTLDs that exactly match existing trademarks. The USPTO said:
Some of the new gTLDs under consideration may have significance as source identifiers… Accordingly, the USPTO is amending its gTLD policy to allow, in some circumstances, for the registration of a mark consisting of a gTLD for domain-name registration or registry services
In order to have a gTLD trademark approved, the applicant would have to pass several tests, substantially reducing the number of marks that would get the USPTO’s blessing.
First, only companies that have signed a Registry Agreement with ICANN would be able to get a gTLD trademark. That should continue to prohibit “front-running”, in which a gTLD applicant tries to secure an advantage during the application process by getting a trademark first.
Second, the registry would have to own a prior trademark for the gTLD string in question. It would have to exactly match the gTLD, though the dot would not be considered.
It would have to be a word mark, without attached disclaimers, for the same types of goods and services that web sites within the gTLD are supposed to provide.
What this seems to mean is that registries would not be able to get trademarks on closed generics.
You can’t get a US trademark on the word “cheese” if you sell cheese, for example, but you can if you sell a brand of T-shirts called Cheese.
So you could only get a trademark on “.cheese” as a gTLD if the class was something along the lines of “domain name registration services for web sites devoted to selling T-shirts”.
Third, registries would have to present a bunch of other evidence demonstrating that their brand is already so well-known that consumers will automatically assume they also own the gTLD:
Because consumers are so highly conditioned and may be predisposed to view gTLDs as non-source indicating, the applicant must show that consumers already will be so familiar with the wording as a mark, that they will transfer the source recognition even to the domain name registration or registry services.
Fourth, and here’s the kicker, the registry would have to show it provides a “legitimate service for the benefit of others”. The USPTO explained:
To be considered a service within the parameters of the Trademark Act, an activity must, inter alia, be primarily for the benefit of someone other than the applicant.
While operating a gTLD registry that is only available for the applicant’s employees or for the applicant’s marketing initiatives alone generally would not qualify as a service, registration for use by the applicant’s affiliated distributors typically would.
In other words, a .ford as a single-registrant gTLD would not qualify for a trademark, but a .ford that allowed its dealerships around the world to register domains would.
That appears to exclude many dot-brand applicants. In the current batch, most dot-brands expect to be the sole registrant as well as the registry, at least at first.
Some applications talk in vague terms about also opening up their namespace to affiliates, but in most applications I’ve read that’s a wait-and-see proposition.
The new USPTO rules, which are open for comment to people who have registered with its web site, would appear to apply to a very small number of applicants at this stage.