'XXX' Marks the Spot
The exercise of figuring out one’s “porn star name” is probably more familiar to college students than to college administrators. (For the uninitiated: the standard formula is your first pet’s name, then the name of the street you grew up on.) But a new standard for the addresses of pornographic Web domains, approved in March by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), might prompt administrators to think of their college’s "porn star name," and consider whether they ought to snatch it up before some opportunistic flesh-peddler tries to do so.
College marketers may also have to decide if it is worth it to move beyond their traditional “.edu" domains to more intuitive Web addresses that will soon be available due to another change to the ICANN system — a question that touches on whether Web URLs are still relevant to institutional branding.
The ICM Registry, the official registrar for the new “.xxx” domains, will begin taking applications this month from trademark holders — including colleges — that do not wish to see their good names co-opted by an adult website. “The University of BigState may prefer that there not be a BigState.xxx domain,” explained Gregory Jackson, the vice president for policy and analysis at Educause, in a memo on the organization’s website.
Between Sept. 7 and Oct. 28, the ICM Registry will allow each non-porn institution that has trademarked its institution’s name (and variations thereon) to preempt X-rated interlopers by blocking them from registering its trademarks as “.xxx” domains. For example, Harvard -- which owns a trademark on its name (as well as several variations, including “Hahvahd”) -- will be able to register Harvard.xxx before anyone else has a chance to do so.
However, colleges that do not own trademarks on their names -- including colleges that cannot do so because their names are too generic, such as Smith College or Brown University -- will not be able to block adult entertainers from scooping up Smith.xxx and Brown.xxx when the ICM Registry begins processing registrations from non-trademark holding applicants from the porn industry on Nov. 8. (Brown will have the chance to block BrownUniversity.xxx, however, as it does own that trademark; Smith will not be able to block SmithCollege.xxx, as its trademark on those words expired in 1991.)
They will still be able to block those domains, however, if no industry entities have registered those sites by Dec. 6, when ICM will begin taking registrations from all applicants. That is also when colleges will be able to block variations on their names that might in fact be more appealing to pornographers seeking to capitalize on a college’s brand, such as HotSmithWomen.xxx. (Such precautions are common in the corporate world, where companies such as Xerox have forfended against having their brands hijacked by online haters by registering domains like ihatexerox.net and xeroxcorporationsucks.com.) Any porn companies that want those domains will have first crack in November, if the trademarks on those exact phrases remain unclaimed.
This might be much ado about nothing. A cursory scan of DomainRegistry.com suggests that porn-themed URLs that use the names of highly recognizable colleges are not exactly hot property. Searches of DomainRegistry.com for each of the Ivy League universities, appended with words such as “sluts” and “hotties” (e.g. www.harvardhotties.com), turned up only two registered domains — neither of which was being used for pornography.
“It’s not clear to me that anybody should be worried,” said Jackson, the policy analyst who penned the Educause memo, in an interview.
The bigger question colleges will have to face, Jackson says, is deciding whether they want to avail themselves of a new option of purchasing a domain whose address has a more intuitive suffix. ICANN will soon begin allowing institutions to purchase URLs that end in a specific name or phrase, rather than “.edu.” For example, the admissions department at Carleton College could move from “carleton.edu/admissions” to “admissions.carleton,” without any ".edu."
Unlike with the new “.xxx” registrations, trademark holders will not get first dibs on so-called “generic top-level domains” (gTLD), nor will institutions be permitted to reserve to prevent others from doing so when registration opens on January 12, 2012.
“My sense that the people who have talked about this, by and large, have been doing it from a marketing perspective,” said Jackson. “What they want to do is get the name out in cleaner fashion.”
But a “cleaner” URL comes at a cost. In order to own the “.carleton” domain, the college would have to pay ICANN $185,000 upfront and $25,000 per year after that. The institutional website is widely considered a crucial marketing tool for colleges, but at a time when visitors land in college-affiliated Web domains via Google searches, apps, or browser tabs, the relevance of the URL might be diminishing.
Jackson points to the rise of link-shorteners, which convert URLs to strings of gibberish economical enough to fit in a tweet, as evidence that the content of Web addresses has become less important. In light of that shift, Jackson says he doubts that many institutions will be willing to bear the cost of buying, maintaining and administrating a branded gTLD.
“We’re already well on the way toward people not noticing what the actual URL is,” he says.
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