What’s in a [domain] name? Registration and Ownership of Domain Names

30 January, 2017

At a basic level, domain names function as a sign-post for a website. They are however increasingly important to businesses, meaning that ensuring your ownership is secure is vital.

Who owns it?

The owner of a domain name is the person or organisation listed as its “registrant” or “owner” with the registry at which it is registered.

If you are unsure as to whether you are listed as the registrant of a domain name, you can check with a “whois” lookup, which displays certain contact and renewal information for domain names.

If you are not listed as the registrant, then you do not legally own that domain name. You might not be listed because:

  • your web hosting service provider is listed instead;
  • the person or business which sold you the domain name is still listed; or
  • an employee of yours is listed.

While you might have a legal right to require the person or business which is listed to transfer ownership of the domain name to you, in practice this can be difficult to do, so you should try to ensure you are the registered owner from the outset.

How do you make sure you own it?

If you’re setting up a website jointly with another individual or business, be clear about who will own the domain name. Conflicts around ownership of domain names can be difficult to resolve, and often the person or business which first listed itself as the registrant will win out.

If someone else is listed as the registrant, you may simply be able to ask them to complete a transfer. If they are unwilling to do this, you should raise the issue with the relevant registry.  If the listed registrant is:

  • your web hosting provider: check the terms of your service contract with them to see what it says about domain name registrations;
  • a person or business which sold you the domain name: you should check any written assignment (transfer) of the domain name to see if you can require them to help you with the change in registration, and whose cost any steps will be at; or
  • an employee: as well as ensuring your company, rather than an individual, is listed as the “registrant”, you should change the “registrant” email address to one which multiple people have access to (for instance, admin@company.com).

Squatters’ Rights?

Remember, ownership of a domain name is dependent on registration. While you may have a right to a domain name if it uses one of your trade marks (so for instance you can take action against a “domain name squatter” who registered it in the hope of selling it to you at an inflated price) such rights are difficult and expensive to enforce.

So how do I avoid problems?

In short, think about domain name ownership issues in advance. Internal procedures setting out how employees register domain names, making sure you have an effective assignment (transfer) if you are buying the website from someone, or a provision in your contract with your hosting services provider, should help protect you from time-consuming and costly disputes down the line.

Consider also whether you need to register more than 1 domain name. “.co.uk” and “.com” are just two of a multitude of addresses now available.

If you would like further advice on any of the legal issues relating to domain names or websites, please contact Elliot Fry.