by Dave Watson
What can a company do to protect its presence online, or to regain domain names that have been acquired by someone else? We offer helpful advice, information and resources for Internet-era businesses looking to master their domain(s).
In a very short time domain names have gone from total obscurity to a complete necessity, especially for businesses. A domain name (or, more often, a collection of them) is a company's face to the world-the way customers find them and research their products or services. Clear, direct and identifiable domain names are probably the most useful form of international advertising a corporation can possess. Accordingly, domains have become very valuable corporate assets.
But despite that importance, companies don't always manage to retain possession of their Net or Web names and fail to lock down all the possible domain variations (products and brand names, country codes and other top-level extensions) that might be needed now or in the future. Remember, domain names are rare because each one has to be unique. That has created a scarce resource with an international demand. What can your company do to make sure it keeps ahead of its competition?
One: Respect the Net and Understand its Value
A company that is serious about doing business online (or merely wants to protect its brand names and trademarks from being obtained and perhaps misused by others) has to regard the Net as a management priority. It is simply too important an issue to be delegated to the IT department as if it were a mere technical matter. Remember that a company's domain names are valuable corporate assets and should never be registered in an employee's name. It doesn't mean domain portfolios have to take much time to manage, but a clear company policy should be set up that recognizes the importance of domain names and assigns responsibility for them to a person in a position to make decisions. Webnames.ca offers a free, quick, Intellectual Property Vulnerability Quiz that assesses how well a company manages and protects its virtual-world assets.
Once a company has a system in place to coordinate its domain name holdings, it is much easier to spot names that have been missed and identify desirable names owned by other parties. It is also much less likely that the ownership of a domain name will expire unnoticed. A strategy can quickly be devised (and implemented just as rapidly) to obtain those missing names, pay attention to any new top-level domains that are created, and decide what to do about names held by others.
Two: Prevention is Inexpensive
One of the happy little paradoxes of the digital age is that, despite the importance and global reach of domain names, they are a remarkable bargain, more effective and less expensive than any other media form. Even a small classified ad running for a few days in a newspaper costs more than holding a domain name for a year, provided your company gets it first and doesn't have to negotiate with a domain broker, a disgruntled former employee, a competitor, or the courts in order to obtain the rights to it.
Admittedly, Webnames.ca is in the business of registering domain names and securing Internet identities (among other services) and thus there is some ulterior motivation in advising companies to purchase every name available. However, that doesn't change the fact that someone, somewhere, WILL buy that name, simply because they are a limited resource. Consider how difficult it is to find a usable .COM name these days-eventually all top-level domains will become just as fully subscribed.
Losing a domain name could be quite a concern, depending on what it gets used for. At minimum, it means potential customers might encounter the Web equivalent of dialing the wrong number-a URL that leads to a holding page instead of your site. Frankly, your company would be getting off light if that's all that came up. There could be offensive or inappropriate content, a site disparaging your company, or even a clever competitor redirecting people to an equivalent product they sell-complete with a special discount code only visible to people who reached the page by looking for your brand of widgets in the first place.
With that in mind, a company should list and prioritize potential domain name opportunities such as brand and model names, trademarks, even corporate slogans and phrases used in advertising. An internal brainstorming session can produce many of these, and Webnames.ca also offers a Domain Mining service, which analyses Web sites to identify possible combinations. Another good idea is to monitor the list of domains that are due to expire-not only might you catch a useful name that someone is about to abandon or discover a good one that hadn't been thought of internally, but you could also spot one of your expiring domains that had escaped notice.
Remember that acquiring additional names does not have to be treated just as a defensive move to protect a company's image-each domain name is actually a marketing opportunity, another gateway into your site, a way to weave your firm deeper into the Web. It can even help boost your search engine rankings.
Three: Once You Have Them, Hold Them
Part of developing a corporate Internet strategy is ensuring that, once registered, domains stay in the company's possession. Provided there are no legal challenges to ownership it's pretty simple, a matter of renewing on time. However, even the most savvy firms occasionally slip up. Often it's because the contact information associated with the domain hasn't been updated. For that reason it's wise to keep track of when domains are due to expire and to regularly update any contact changes. It's also a good idea to make the contact e-mail address out to a job title or position-a generic, constant address-rather than to an individual. Otherwise, when 'nutty bunny' leaves your employ, your domains may start expiring without warning.
It's worth noting that one of the benefits of a full-service domain registrar is that they will use several methods to contact a company, and not just rely on e-mail. A registrar that is focused on customer service will mail printed notices and even telephone to make sure an expiring domain doesn't slip by. As added insurance, ask that renewal notices go to more than one person, say to an administrative and a technical contact.
Another issue is Domain Hijacking, the practice of snatching away a name from its rightful owner. ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) changed their transfer policy in 2004 so that domain transfer requests are automatically approved in five days unless they are explicitly denied by the account owner. Because a non-response becomes the equivalent of answering "yes" to a transfer request, domains with incorrect e-mail addresses and outdated administrative contact information are at particular risk as the transfer request notifications may not reach them. Companies need to make sure they keep their contact information up-to-date (and not automatically delete emails from the Registry as spam). One security precaution people should take advantage of is to turn on the "Registrar-Lock" status on a domain name, which prevents unauthorized transfers from being approved. Webnames.ca automatically locks domains for its customers-those who legitimately want to transfer a name can simply login to their account to "unlock" the domain.
Four: Getting the Ones That Got Away
Sometimes, despite the best efforts, a domain name gets away. Other times somebody else simply got there first. Whatever the cause, it's quite possible you still may be able to obtain it.
First, determine who owns it. Is it a domain broker, an aggravated former customer, a competitor, or an individual whose family name or hobby site happens to match up with one of your company's products? Does it look like a site will be built, or is the name merely being held? Next, assess the value of that domain to your company-is it just an in-house name for a project under development or does it encroach upon your corporate image, marketing campaigns or plans for future expansion into another country?
If it's determined that a given name is worth pursuing, there are three ways to proceed. The riskiest is just to wait it out, and hope it isn't renewed next year so that you can get it (before someone else does). Obviously, that is only practical for low-priority names, but it's smart to keep a wish list active. Thousands of names are freed up every month.
It also may be possible to buy the domain name, provided the price is within reason. This strategy works particularly well with domain name brokers, since buying and reselling domains is what they do. Likewise, an individual who has set up a personal site could be open to offers, especially if their site hasn't been established too long or receives very few visitors. Buying a name from a small business that is using it for an online presence may be more difficult (or expensive) than from a hobbyist, but most companies would at least entertain an offer. There are a number of Domain Name Arbiters as well, private companies that specialize in negotiating for these assets. Even if you decide not to hire one, many offer detailed resources and information on their sites (just search for Domain Arbiters and plenty will appear).
There may be cases where legal action is the only route. However, a company needs a strong claim to prevail, and going to court is usually more expensive than simply making an offer to buy a name. It can also generate bad publicity, as when a large corporation is perceived as going after an ordinary person with some kind of reasonable claim to use the domain in question (i.e., the name wasn't registered in order to garner a payoff). The approach of sending stern letters from a lawyer followed by further legal action can thus backfire, and end up helping the case of the defendant. Instead, being able to demonstrate that the company tried friendly tactics first is a plus. Remember, merely wanting a domain name is not enough to justify a company being awarded the rights to it.
Some factors can build a company's case. The single biggest one is that the name matches a registered trademark. Cases built on trademark law and/or a demonstrated legal right to use a name are almost always decided in favour of the plaintiff. Similarly, if a site is used to criticize a company, or is being held by a competitor solely to prevent you from using it, there is a good chance to win although that is not a certain outcome. Issues of defamation vs. free speech get hammered out in the courts.
Domain Name Resources:
Webnames.ca Intellectual Property Vulnerability Quiz
ICANN Resources for Intellectual Property
ICANN Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy
CIRA Dispute Resolution Policy
Web Developers Virtual Library
Hobbes' Internet Timeline v8.0
WIPO Domain Name Dispute Resolution Service
Bitlaw (Technology Law Resource) An Introduction to Domain Names
KEYTLaw Domain Name Law information