For all businesses with an online presence, a website domain name is hugely important: it means customers can find you. Having access to the right domain name can make or break your digital marketing strategy. Accordingly, it’s important, as a business owner, to know who has the rights to access and use your domain name (and for how long). This article will address how to ensure you ‘own’ your website domain and what that means for your business.
Registering a Website Domain
Registering a website domain doesn’t mean you ‘own’ it permanently. It’s similar to a lease: you are given exclusive rights to use the URL for a set period of time, with the possibility of renewal.
You can register a domain name through a number of different online registries. As the registrant of the domain name, you will be able to use that URL for as long as you keep paying the registration fees.
Ensuring the Right Entity ‘Owns’ the Website Domain
It’s extremely important to check that the right business entity is the registrant of the website domain.
For instance, if your business partner is the registrant of the website domain, but your business operates under a company structure, the company itself should actually be the registrant. This way, if your business partner leaves, your website domain won’t leave with them.
The same principle applies if you ask one of your employees to register the website domain for your company. Make sure they enter the business entity as the registrant, rather than their own name. You don’t want to be caught out after the employee leaves and you realise they own the domain name and need to transfer registration to you.
What ‘Owning’ a Website Domain Gives You
Owning a website domain grants you the online identity of that URL. It provides you, as the registrant, with a way of directing customers to your website in order for them to purchase your goods and services.
It’s not a trade mark, so it won’t provide you with exclusive rights to use your URL’s name. For example, we have registration rights to the domain name https://legalvision.com.au/. However, this alone doesn’t stop others from using the name ‘LegalVision’. It’s our trade mark which provides us with these rights. Therefore, owning a domain name doesn’t mean other businesses won’t try to copy that name from you. You need to complement the domain name with a registered trade mark to have lasting brand protection.
The Risks of Not Having Access to Your Website Domain
If you’re a business with an online presence, having access to your website domain is vital. It would be devastating to lose access to a well-developed website which allows customers to learn about your business and purchase your goods or services. You would have to put time, money and effort into re-designing your website and possibly rebranding.
Perhaps more importantly, you would lose the customer traffic which was being funnelled to your website. Your business’ domain name is attached to how your business ranks in search engines such as Google. It’s difficult to start from scratch or have your new domain name competing with your old domain name.
These risks highlight the importance of:
- ensuring your business entity is the registered owner of the domain name; and
- paying fees on time to ensure your ownership doesn’t lapse.
Disputing the Ownership of a Domain Name
Perhaps you fail to pay the registration fees on time, lose your website domain and it’s bought by someone else. Or perhaps you find out a competitor has bought a domain name deceptively similar to yours, with no real intention of using it as a legitimate website.
In these cases, you can use the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) or the au Dispute Resolution Policy (auDRP) (depending on whether the domain name ends in .com or .au). The UDRP was developed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which operates the domain name system.
To go through the dispute resolution process, you can submit a complaint in relation to an Australian website domain (ending in .au) to the Resolution Institute. If your complaint relates to a domain ending in .com, you can contact the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).
The auDRP will consider three main factors:
- the website domain subject to the complaint must be identical or confusingly similar to a name, trade mark or service mark over which you have rights;
- the other party must have no rights or legitimate interests in respect of the name; and
- the website domain must have been registered, or subsequently used, by the other party in bad faith.
If you’re successful, you may be able to get the website domain transferred to you or have the website domain cancelled. The UDRP has a similar process, with slight differences. For example, in a dispute over a .com domain name, the complainant has to show registration and use in bad faith.
Buying a Domain Name
In you are in a domain name dispute with someone, or just have your heart set on a particular domain registered to someone else, you could buy the domain name off the current registrant. Cybersquatting is not uncommon. It refers to the phenomenon of mass purchasing domain names with the hopes of selling these domains on for a higher price.
Although it’s frustrating to have to buy a domain name for more than you want to pay, this could be a better commercial strategy in the long term. Indeed, it could be cheaper than the cost and reputational loss of rebranding or going through a costly and complicated dispute resolution process.
If you’re a business operating online in some way, your domain name is one of your most valuable assets. It’s key to your marketing strategy and connects customers to your brand.
Accordingly, it’s crucial that the right registrant has access to the relevant website domain. It’s also important to keep track of, and maintain, that registration to ensure you don’t lose your access. Ultimately, you don’t ‘own’ your website domain. You simply have the right to use it for as long as you keep up the registration fees. This domain also won’t protect your brand name and stop competitors from using it; you need a registered trade mark to do that.
If you need assistance protecting your website domain or other intellectual property (IP), get in touch with LegalVision’s IP lawyers on 1300 544 755.