Who Really Owns Your Domain Name?

If you’re thinking about your domain name ownership and your business, I may have some bad news.

You may not own your domain name.

If you’re a business like thousands of others, you may have started your company with a web host that registered your domain name in their name. And some of those companies see your name as their property that they won’t give up easily. That’s a problem faced by far too many companies, and a problem that has forced thousands of companies to court. Nearly 10 online organizations handle domain name disputes worldwide and those disputes are expensive.

Don’t want to go to court? You need to find out early if you have this problem, and if you do, you need a plan to handle it right.

The Problem with Sticky Vendors

Companies often fall into this problem by doing business with “sticky” vendors. Such businesses offer relatively cheap hosting and easy setup and may register your domain as part of the hosting package.

To move is difficult, which is why they’re called “sticky”. Many register the domain name in such a way that you would either need to pay them for the right to transfer the domain back to you or would need to go to court. It doesn’t matter if this is your business name. If you want your domain name ownership back, you may have to pay them.

Is Your Domain Stuck?

To find out if your domain is stuck, go to whois.com or Network Solutions or one of the many WhoIs checking services on the web.Domain Name RegistrationYou could even contact us and we’ll be happy to do this for free!

Once you do the search, you’ll see four entries (notice our entry as an example at right as a partial example):

  1. The name of the actual registrar (at the top of the listing);
  2. followed by the Registrant, or person who filed the registration
  3. then the Admin or person who handles business requests
  4. and finally by the Tech, or person who handles the technical questions

If your name or the name of someone in your company is in that list, then you can bypass the host and contact the company listed as the Registrar to request a formal transfer. You may need pay a fee and provide documentation, but you’ll generally be able to transfer the domain into your company name.

If you’re name doesn’t exist in that list, then it’s very simple: the domain name ownership is not yours and thus starts the legal dance.

Step 1: Ask About Domain Name Ownership

Some web hosts that we’ve worked with will gladly make the transfer if asked. The key is to ask nicely. No matter your relationship, be kind and respectful and the transfer may come.

Note: Transfers are easy! All the host has to do is log in to their Registrar account and request the transfer over a web form. An email will be sent to the email listed as the Registrant and a link in that email will need to be clicked within 72 hours. The total process should take 15 minutes. Keep this in mind if they charge to handle the transfer.

Step 2: Demand

Bring in a lawyer if the host won’t transfer the website or won’t transfer without a large fee (think $1,000 plus). For $75 to $150, most lawyers will be happy to write a simple letter on their stationary and forward the letter to the host.

A lawyer’s cost at this stage is much cheaper than buying another domain name and reprinting all your collateral.

It also could be very effective against small operators. If they see you as a big operator with deep pockets, they may opt to transfer the domain instead of face their own legal fees. On the other hand, it may also trigger their legal response.

This is where companies need to make the final choice: formal complaint or rebrand.

Step 3: Going Ballistic

The nuclear option of a legal complaint could become very expensive, so weigh this against the marketing costs of rebranding and reprinting.

However, the courts will generally be on your side if you go this route. Check entries in the World Intellectual Property Organization and see a sample list of court cases for domain name ownership complaints.

In 90% of cases, if the domain owner cannot prove that they’re doing business through that domain, the domain is transferred to the petitioning company.

My favorite case is with the domain Bayersucks.com. The domain holder lost to Bayer because the domain name included the company’s trademark and because the domain holder wasn’t using the domain for commercial purposes.

You can find out more information on legal options at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

For an excellent story on one person’s odyssey into domain retrieval through legal means, see The Do’s and Don’ts of Securing a Web Domain on Entrepreneur Magazine. They don’t paint a pretty picture.

Final Option: Retreat

If you can’t spend thousands, don’t have a large investment in the domain or the domain “owner” won’t budge, consider choosing a new domain and rebranding.

This shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s a big decision to walk away as your investment is more than just your printed materials. Move away from your website after it’s cemented as part of your brand and you will lose business, especially if your competition buys the old domain and exploits it.

To switch, redirect traffic to your new domain correctly and hold on to your old domain until traffic slows to a crawl. For the most effective SEO benefits, use a “404 redirect” for every page on your site. Google sees a 404 Redirect as your signal to archive the old site in their results. It will use that notice to direct search requests toward your new domain.

Additional Resources

The following sites have excellent resources on this topic:

Cybersquatting by Nolo.com

Domain Dispute Newsroom by the National Arbitration Forum

Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act

And feel free to call or email us anytime. Visual String specializes in solving web marketing problems for businesses large and small. We’re happy to provide advice, even on domain name ownership. Reach out. We want to help.