The Domain Name System is one of the most important components of the Internet’s infrastructure. It’s what allows websites to use human-readable web addresses rather than hard-to-remember and unbrandable IP numbers. The DNS is responsible for translating domain names into IP addresses, which are then used by machines to route packets of information around the Internet. Site owners are frequently under the impression that they “own” their domain name, but that’s not really the case. No one owns domain names; they merely pay for the use of them for a while.
The public deals with domain name registrars, which often take the form of web hosting providers or other entities that provide online services. Users pay registries to register their domain names, but who do they register them with?
You can think of the domain name system as a tree. The trunk is an organization called ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which oversees management of the DNS and coordinates the functions of IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority), which is responsible for managing the technical aspects of the domain name system and the root domain, from which all other domain descend.
ICANN delegates the management of specific top-level domains to registry operators who maintain the domain name registries — the databases that contain all the domain names and information about their registrants (the entities who registered the domain name). Registry operators take various forms: in the case of country-code top-level domains like “.uk” or “.fr”, they are often government organizations; generic top-level domains like “.com”, may be managed by commercial organizations. For “.com”, Verisign is the registry operator.
Registry operators usually don’t interact directly with the public, although there are some exceptions. Instead they allow third-parties to sell registration services on their behalf. These are the domain name registrars that you and I would use to register our domains. Registry operators act like wholesalers, and registrars are the retailers.
The whole system works more or less just because everyone agrees that it should. There’s no particular reason that this domain name system should be the domain name system. It’s perfectly possible to set up an alternative system, but you’d have to get everyone to agree to use it, which is unlikely.
So, back to the question we started with: who owns domain names? In many ways, it’s not a reasonable question. Individuals and organizations pay for the use of a domain name and its entries in the domain name system. Registrars pay registry operators for the right to register particular TLDs and they also pay a contribution to ICANN. The system works because of a complex set of agreements between various entities. No one actually owns domain names.