By SARA FISHER

Staff Reporter

It's a chicken-and-egg question: What comes first, a company's name or its Internet address?

Ask Jess Wall, managing director of Tridian Design and Development, a Northridge Web design and marketing company.

Before hitting upon Tridian, Wall and his partner spent over two months dreaming up names for their start-up company, only to discard them after discovering that the corresponding Web address was already taken.

It's becoming a familiar problem. As Web sites become basic components of most business plans, L.A. companies face growing difficulties that range from not getting first-choice Internet addresses to dealing with mistaken identities. With up to five new top-level domain names expected to be introduced as early as September adding to the now-familiar .com, .edu, .org and .gov suffixes companies and intellectual property attorneys are bracing for more confusion.

"I'm hearing about more and more companies not being able to get the addresses they want," said Kathleen Allen, a professor of entrepreneurship at USC. "With the new address extensions (top-level domains) pending and with the growing sense among businesses that they need a Web site as a marketing tool, this is going to become a huge issue."

Like Wall, other heads of L.A. start-up companies report that they are changing their companies' names for no other reason than to match an available Web address.

Creative spelling is one option. Gary Pietruszka, president of BildNet, originally wanted to call his North Hollywood software development company BuildNet, but "buildnet.com" was already taken. "Bildnet.com" was available, however, so he snapped up that address and named his company accordingly.

Now Pietruszka realizes the obscurity of BildNet, and for that and other reasons, he is in the process of changing company's name to the more easily understandable "BuildEZ." Not incidentally, "BuildEZ.com" will be the company's new Web address.

"All the good names have been grabbed up," Pietruszka said. "I know a lot of companies in L.A. that settled for names they didn't originally want. Also, I think we're going to see more and more people spelling words a bit more awkwardly."

Jon Goodman, director of EC2, an incubator for multimedia and electronic communications start-up companies at USC, said that companies willing to be creative in their names shouldn't have significant trouble in registering addresses, for now.

"For companies that choose not to alter their name or spelling often for brand-name reasons almost all of those cases have been settled by the expedient factor of paying money to the current holder of the name," she said.

The system for Internet addresses is expected to undergo major changes later this year. Similar to the proliferation of new telephone area codes accommodating a growing number of phone lines, up to five new suffixes (such as .shop) are expected to be created for Internet addresses. Herndon, Va.-based Network Solutions Inc., the sole manager of Internet address registration, will continue to control registration of names for the existing suffixes. Another company or companies are expected to manage the new suffixes.

But a slew of new problems is anticipated. Even now, there is a lot of confusion about suffixes. "Whitehouse.gov," for example, is the official presidential site. "Whitehouse.com" is a pornography site, recently bearing a banner reading "this is our favorite intern of the month."

"Adding suffixes to accommodate the increasing number of Web sites may be an illusory solution," said Robert Berliner, a patent attorney and partner at Fulbright & Jaworski in L.A. "It is likely to cause a situation in which the same name is used under different domains, which creates a high probability of confusion."

"Also, (the introduction of new suffixes) will encourage people to register themselves under more names to protect themselves," Berliner said.

Another big issue is the address itself. Throughout the Internet's history, addresses have been given out on a first-come, first-served basis. Now, lawyers are saying that a company may be able to wrest away an already assigned name on the basis of name recognition.

"First-come service on address registration doesn't mean anything anymore," said William Wright, a partner and member of the intellectual property group at Loeb & Loeb in L.A. "The value of a trademark shouldn't be diminished on the Internet, so if someone else has a registered name in the real world, they may be able to fight whoever has it in the virtual world on grounds of dilution."

Fortune 100 companies are less vulnerable to companies trying to cash in on their name recognition through a similar Web address. Trademark laws will protect them. For example, any entity trying to register the address "Disney.shop" without the permission of Walt Disney Co. would undoubtedly be denied.

But for smaller companies, competitors could register an identical Web site address, but with a different suffix, and lure away customers. Consequently, many business owners intend to buy Internet addresses across the suffix board (.com, .shop, etc.) to protect their name and market share.

"I am absolutely planning to buy as many names as I can to protect our market share," Pietruszka said.

Tridian Design Managing Director Ardeshir Radpour said his company intends to buy Tridian names under the new top-level domains as soon they become available.

"I am going to make sure we get all the related names, but from a marketing viewpoint, it's a company's job to make people know and remember a full address (including suffix)," Radpour said. "It's a name-recognition issue."

USC's Allen said that while it is a company's responsibility to familiarize customers with its specific, full address, she believes that companies with suffixes other than the accustomed "com" will be at an inherent disadvantage.

"People's instinct is to type in a company name, then dot com," she said. "It will take a while for general awareness to catch up with the changes. Until then, there are probably going to be problems of mistaken identity and lost e-mail."

The one group clearly reaping the benefits of these Internet issues is intellectual property attorneys. Business for them is booming.

"About two years ago, we first started to see companies hit problems on the Internet regarding copyrighted names and material," said Kent Raygor, a partner and head of the intellectual practice group at the L.A. office of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton. "But now, these issues are mushrooming as companies are really waking up to the problems that face them when it comes to having an online presence."

Added Wright: "(Intellectual property) law is screaming on almost every front. As the technology and the local companies really take off, everyone cares about intellectual property rights. As the stakes go up, intellectual property has a greater valuation. The industry is going nutty."

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