There are 240 billion different online addresses registered today, but up until now, only a limited number of top-level domains — the suffixes that end the web address, which can include country codes such as .ca, .us or .eu, and a handful of generic domain names such as .com, .net, .info, and .org.
But new top-level domain names are expected to be released starting next month, and by the end of this year, buyers may be able to choose from hundreds, which will span many languages.
Nick Caristinos, a Vancouver-based account manager with trademark registry webnames.ca, says some domain buyers are just prospectors looking for cheap gold.
"There are people out there who just want to register domain names and make a profit with it," he said.
In the early dot-com days, big brands lost out as savvy cybersquatters bought up domains and demanded money to hand them over.
Identical domain names with different extensions, some of them pointed at strange or misleading sites, can be frustrating for people trying to find an organization's actual website and can be even more frustrating for a company that is trying to maintain its brand.
Intellectual property lawyer Chris Wilson said companies will have to protect themselves.
"Sometimes you have to do something about it because they are a competitor and they are taking away web traffic, and sometimes you have to do something about it simply from a trademark perspective to stop someone from diluting your trademark rights," he said.
Some companies have paid millions in litigation to regain their brands or retain their web identities. Avoiding the risk has led to a growth in companies such as webnames.ca, a domain clearing house and trademark protection agency. Caristinos said that for $185 a year, his company protects someone's brand by registering domains early.
"For a corporation," he said, "the need to protect their brand across these different extensions, especially the ones close to their business, will be crucial."