Who's who in the domain name world?
Which one are you? Well you're the registrant, the purchaser of domain names and the last link in the chain that runs from ICANN at the top to you at the bottom. But there are several layers it passes through to get to you. Let's take a look.
ICANN - Top Dog
Let's start with the big dog itself ICANN. ICANN is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a body in charge of managing the domain name space. In its own words "ICANN was formed in 1998. It is a not-for-profit public-benefit corporation with participants from all over the world dedicated to keeping the Internet secure, stable and interoperable. It promotes competition and develops policy on the Internet’s unique identifiers." It loosely the gTLD registries (see below), and sets policy around new domain extensions. Generally its a good guy, and the last word on domain disputes, though it is sometimes lofty, intellectual and bureaucratic (not that those are all bad things, an organisation like that needs to be careful).
Registries - They're Wholesalers Only
The registries are the managers of the TLDs (Top level domains), either gTLDs (generic, like .com), or ccTLD (country code, e.g. .uk, or .fr). When you buy a domain.com it is recorded in the registry's database and that is the ultimate record of your ownership of the domain.
The TLDs are created by ICANN and the rights to manage them are tendered to commercial companies in the case of gTLDs (e.g. .com is managed by Verisign), or for ccTLDs given to the national governments who in turn assign/tender their management to other organisations (e.g. Nominet in the UK for .uk, or Afnic in France for .fr).
But the registries generally don't sell direct to customers (or can't in some cases), so instead they sell domains wholesale to the registrars.
Registrars - They Sell You Domains Direct
Here's Gandi. Hurray! The Registrars are the commercial companies that sell one or more domain name extensions direct to you and me (or through resellers - see below). The top tier of these are ICANN accredited which is a greater 'seal of approval', but nowadays there are so many this doesn't necessarily mean much. (Gandi was one of the first to be accredited in 1999).
Registrars interface directly with one or more registries, they manage your details and billing relationship. They represent your interest at the registry and will usually be the first port of call for domain disputes. So they are important to you, particularly their service and policy towards disputes. Know your registry!! Which brings us to Resellers.
Resellers - They Sell on Registrars Domains
Resellers look like registrars, but they aren't. They are commercial companies selling domain names, but they don't have direct relationships with the registries, but instead use the technology of another registrar to manage the domain names. This means if your domain provider is a reseller, it is using another registrar, and you may not know who that is. Many domain companies are registrars for some domains, and resellers for others. Interestingly in the UK, most of the big domain companies are not registrars for the gTLDs, e.g. .com, .net, etc., instead they use the technology of other companies. This can be problem when it comes to registrar behaviour or disputes (more next time).
Gandi is a registrar for all its domains, and there are some reseller companies that use Gandi as their registrar.
It's you! Hurray!! You may be a company, an individual, an organisation, a ghost (well maybe not a ghost), but you are the purchaser of the domain name. You buy it from either a registrar (like Gandi) or a reseller. You should be the ultimate owner of the domain (you are with Gandi), though you should check the policies of your domain company to make sure they are not taking the ownership themselves and leasing it to you. You manage your domain via your registrar/reseller and they manage the records of your domain in the registry or registries (if you have lots).
So there you have it! Now you can entertain all your friends at dinner parties with your extensive knowledge of how the domain name industry works. Or hope that you get onto "Who wants to be a millionaire" and the last question is:
"In the domain name industry, the manager of the .com domain extension is know as":
(the answer is (c), (d) is about killing kings or something). Good luck!