.tm makes Net trademark debut

Internet businesses looking for new ways to increase brand awareness now have a new option: the ".tm" domain name.

Because it recalls the familiar "trademark" symbol, ".tm"-which Sunday joined the ranks of ".com," ".net," ".org," and others as a top-level domain-can now be used to spiff up a company's Web address. For example, a company could register its name as "www.cannedpeas.tm." The domain name does not act as a legal trademark.

But there's a twist: ".tm" is actually the domain name for the country of Turkmenistan, located in Central Asia north of Afghanistan. Countries outside the U.S. all have national domain names-".uk" for the United Kingdom, ".fr" for France, and the recently activated ".nu" for Niue, a Polynesian island nation. The domains are assigned by the International Standards Organization, but Web sites don't have to be physically hosted in a country to use that country's domain name. As a result, some Web sites take on a country's domain name simply because it is catchy- such as ".nu"-or because it sounds authoritative, a la ".tm."

According to Vint Cerf, the so-called "father of the Internet" for creating Internet Protocol, the use of national domain names such as ".nu," ".tm," and ".to" (Togo) for business purposes is blurring the distinction between commercial domain names (".com," ".org," etc.) and national ones. "It's very clear that they're becoming blurred," said Cerf in his speech Tuesday at an international Net conference.

Turkmenistan's domain name was assigned years ago, but until now there was no technological infrastructure to make the domain work. Every domain must be run by a root server, which, like a central switchboard, keeps track of all the Web pages in the domain.

Turkmenistan lacks the resources to provide such a server, so NetNames, a London-based private Internet registry, stepped in to get the domain up and running. Under an agreement with Turkmenistan, NetNames runs the ".tm" root server in London and provides various technical services to operate the domain.

In exchange, NetNames gets to register companies for a fee under the attractive ".tm" domain. " '.tm' also happens to be, purely coincidentally, the international symbol for 'trademark,' " said NetNames USA President Tony Van Couvering. " '.tm' happens to be excellent for brand names, because of the coincidence with the letters, so it looks really good."

According to Van Couvering, businesses go to new domain names because the bulk of the most-recognizable names in ".com" and ".net" have already been taken. "They like the fact that it's empty. '.com' is full up. [With this new domain], you can get your company name, or a generic name you like, 'finance.tm,' 'business.tm' ... only the extension is different." Industry watchers also believe there could be a big potential for new domain names.

The ".nu" domain name was the last new domain to attract attention when it was put into operation by the Internet Users' Society not long ago. ".nu" not only sounds like the English word "new," but it also means "now" in several Scandinavian languages. And in Yiddish, it's a casual greeting, something like, "What's up?"

Van Couvering said Turkmenistan is also getting a slice of the pie. "We're very good at doing domain registrations, and they have a need for technical expertise," he said. "They're getting the Net up there and getting e-mail and stuff."

NetNames will register people for a fee of $249; the Turkmenistan Network Information Center charges $50 per year for registration-the same price as any domain name in the U.S.