Are you a master of your domain?

If you really want it, you can buy the domain name "billgates.com" through a company called Domainmart. The asking price is $1m.

The activities of domain name speculators are getting out of hand. Although technically the names are little more than addresses, enabling one computer to find another over the Internet, the value that can be attached to them is enormous.

Over 200 national registries administer domain names. Each registry has its own top-level domain name or names. This is the bit on the right of the name: for example ".com" or ".org", or that of the increasingly popular Turkmenistan authority, ".tm". Increasingly, however, users – especially those with an international business – will not settle for anything less than "a.com". It is short and punchy and does not deign to specify the country of origin.

There are, of course, other ways of finding a Web site than remembering and typing in a domain name. In practice, Web sites are located most frequently by a hotlink from another site or by using a search engine. As technology improves that will be more the case, not less.

Nevertheless, the ideal domain name would be as simple as possible, consisting of your name or that of your main product and as little else as you can get away with. Cocacola.com would be perfect. The assumption – which is a big assumption – is that an Internet user who wants to know about you will type in your name or your brand name, followed by ".com", and expect to find out all about you.

At the same time, domain names are becoming valued for characteristics which have nothing to do with their function as Internet addresses. Lower case is sexy. As is the very idea of the World Wide Web. Domain names have started to feature prominently in print advertisements, not so much to guide readers to the Web site in question as simply to indicate how up-to-date the advertiser is.

The result is a scramble for the best names, and a secondary market for those who came second in the scramble. Some of this is outright opportunism.

The activities of domain name warehousers have become well known. As in the Bill Gates case, the warehousers buy domain names in the hope that they can sell them back to the brand-owning individual or company for a vast profit.

However, in the recent One in a Million case, the UK courts made it clear that their sympathies were with the brand owners.

But it is not always so clear cut. Many brands are used by businesses which co-exist with the same name in different sectors of the market or different locations. Much of the sophistication of trade mark law around the world is designed to reflect just that. Only one business, however, can have the same domain name.

An industry has developed around defensive registrations. It encourages companies to register as domain names whatever words they would not want to fall in to the hands of somebody else. This might be a potential warehouser, a competitor or someone planning to use the site to publish information about the company which, whether or not it is legally actionable, the company would prefer not to be published. All this is feasible. You can still register a domain name for about a 10th of the cost of registering the same words as a trade mark in a single class in a single country.

Will it last? Possibly not. As search engines get more efficient, and users more sophisticated, the value of the precise wording of a domain name should decrease. In any event it must be unlikely that the system will survive in its present form for very long.

But does it matter now? It probably does. No one knows how the present jockeying for position will end and, for the small cost involved, it must be worth putting yourself in as strong a position as possible. It is probably better to register whatever names occur to you now than to end up in litigation in a year's time over the one that got away.

Bill Gates, incidentally, took a philosophical view of the price tag on "billgates.com". "Perhaps I should be flattered that somebody imagines my name is worth so much," he said, "especially since my parents gave me the same name 42 years ago for free."