Domain names

Few businesses these days operate without a website or some form of online presence. But in order to run a successful website, it's important to understand how domain names work and be aware of potential legal issues.

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What are domain names and how are they registered?

The domain name is an integral part of every website and choosing the right name can be more important than the business name. The domain is the first part of every URL in the address bar of the browser - so, for example, 'rocketlawyer.co.uk'. There are two elements to each domain name: the name itself (ie 'rocketlawyer') and the suffix (ie '.co.uk'). The suffix is often used to indicate the geographical location or nature of the business.

Anyone can register a domain name which has not already been registered, by paying a domain name registration company (eg www.123-reg.co.uk or www.1and1.co.uk) to register it with the relevant domain name authority (eg for domains which use a '.uk' suffix this is Nominet). Domain names are normally registered for one or two years and renewed before the registration period expires. If they are not renewed, they become available for registration by a different business or individual.

If a domain name has already been registered, it can be purchased privately and then transferred across to the purchaser. However, this is generally more expensive, particularly as many businesses register attractive domains in order to make a profit by selling them on (see Cybersquatting below).

Is a domain name separate from webspace?

Domain names are completely separate from the rest of the website. All the contents of a website (eg text, images, menu, e-commerce functionality) are hosted on webspace provided by a web hosting company. Many of these companies also provide domain name services.

What are the legal issues which can arise regarding domain names?

Passing off

If a business registers a domain name in order to try and gain trade by making customers believe they are associated with a separate company, this is known as passing off. To establish passing off, three factors must be present:

  • A good trading reputation must have been built up in the particular name by the separate company
  • There must be misrepresentation to make the public believe the domain name is associated with the separate company
  • Some kind of damage has been caused (eg loss of profits)

Trade mark infringement

If the domain name is similar or identical to a registered trade mark, the trade mark owners may be able to prevent its use by a third party. However, they would also need to prove that this has been detrimental to the trade mark or given an unfair advantage to the third party.

Defamation

If a website uses a domain name in order to damage the reputation of another company, it may be possible to seek redress through defamation law. Many so-called 'gripe sites' have arisen over the years in order to raise grievances about customer service. For further information read Defamation.

What is cybersquatting?

In the early days of the internet, before many companies had their own website, there were numerous instances of domain names being registered by individuals for the sole purpose of selling them on to large corporations for a massively inflated price. This practice came to be known as cybersquatting.

There are no clear rules in the UK regarding cybersquatting, other than potential claims for passing off, trade mark infringement or defamation, as discussed above. However, trade marks which are recorded with the Trademark Clearinghouse do have some extra protection.

How are domain name disputes resolved?

Many disputes can be resolved by writing a cease and desist letter to the registrant of the domain name in contention, or offering to purchase the domain for a reasonable sum.

ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) sets the policies for managing domain name disputes which are generally based on their Uniform Dispute for Domain Names Resolution Policy (UDRP). or UK domain names, Nominet provides their own Dispute Resolution Service (DRS).

If dispute resolution fails, court action may be required - Ask a lawyer for advice.

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