Playing with ®-dudes.

Tuesday, May 11th, 1999

A friend with a small video production firm in New Mexico got a call from a large floor-wax company last month. Seems that his small website-which was basically his initials plus ".com"-carried a domain name that the large firm was interested in. They’re negotiating now for a transfer of that name, which should be worth, if not a fortune, at least a comfortable chunk of change for my friend. He sees it as found money-a reward for having that particular set of initials and the ego to have a eponymous place of your own online. If that makes you say "gee, I should go register some domain names I think might pay off down the road," you’re not alone, and you may well be late to the party. It’s a new form of speculation, as compelling, and, ultimately, as futile as playing the lottery.
Intellectual property-part of the intangible wealth to be exchanged, grown, and speculated on in the world of the Internet-is something you really can’t hold in your hand. It’s not a good. It’s not made by union laborers at a rusty car plant in Detroit. It’s just an idea-not necessarily a good idea, but one that is in the right place at the right time. Poof! It’s worth something.
It’s inevitable that the growth in the trade of intellectual property coincides with the sprawl of the Internet-the perfect medium for distributing products one cannot hold in one’s hand. What is amazing is how something like a domain name-which hardly carries enough weight to even be called an idea-is valuable. Why? It’s a brand.
The people who subscribe to industry journals like Brandweek (yes, there is such a thing) call names-for-things brands, of inherent worth in themselves, not just on the internet, but at the mall, in a car dealership, in a too hip commercial with swing dancers. They go on about "protecting the brand"-making sure that names similar to theirs aren’t being used by others to confuse the buying public, and "extending the brand"-taking a great name for jeans, like Levi’s-and putting it on perfume. Or floor cleaner.
These brands-words in fancy type, really-are what America manufactures these days, and the factories aren’t topped with smokestacks, but satellite dishes.
One of the biggest of these New Factories is here in town at CNN Center, but the zen brandmasters there aren’t working for the news channel, they’re down the hall at World Championship Wrestling, where the names of wrestlers, once novelties, have become stunningly profitable commodities in their own right. I should have become hip to this back about a decade when I noticed that the names "Obi-Wan Kenobi®" and "Jean-Luc Picard®" (do hyphenates make better brands?) started showing up with that little ® thingy next to them, and when the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle began to be very serious in protecting the use of the names Sherlock Holmes® and Dr. John Watson®.
Perhaps now in addition to getting a Social Security number for your just-newborn, you should lock up their name-as-domain (as an investment), and get them one of those ®-dudes to play with in the crib.