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So you think you own your domain? Think again

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One of the first things you will do when setting up your business is to register a domain. It’s likely that you’ll purchase it through a hosting company that will then be on hand if you hit any issues. You might be paying the domain name bill, but are you aware that some registrars will register a domain under their name, so legally you have no authority over it at all? This can cause a multitude of problems, so if this does happen it’s important you know how to rectify it.

What can happen if someone else owns your domain?     

If you build your business around a particular domain name, but then hear that it could be taken away from you isn’t great news. All of the work, time, and money you have put into things like SEO could be abolished, and fast. Unfortunately it isn’t unheard of – not only can a registrar sell on your domain without your permission if they own it, they will have total control over what the website can point to, can control who administers it, or even just hold it hostage and do nothing with it.

Your registrar isn’t the only concern in this scenario, either. For instance, if an old employee registered the domain for you before they moved on to another company, this could also cause problems. Reasserting ownership costs a hefty amount, takes a while, and in some cases can even involve having to switch to a new domain name completely, which can have a devastating effect on a business.

How to find out who owns your domain         

By searching the WHOIS database, you can find out who owns your domain. It’s then crucial that you verify the following:

  • The name of the registrant is your full name or the full legal name of your business
  • The address and phone numbers are correct
  • All contact names are correct and the email addresses are still working – the email addresses should be a business owner, officer, or director

If you outsource your privacy services which includes looking after your domain, however, you’ll need to check that they have the correct information. How to check this can vary, but usually you should be able to access this by logging into your registration account. If you don’t have access to this account, though, this could spell trouble and you need to get in touch with the privacy service as soon as possible.

Read more on creating an online presence:

What to do if you find out that you don’t own your domain      

(1) If your registrar or web developer owns it

It isn’t hugely uncommon for business owners not to own their domain, but you should know about it. In some cases it’s just easier for the web developer to be the owner as they have the knowledge to register it fast, and occasionally they will get discounts for registering lots of domains; so it can work out cheaper for you. But at the very least, the domain should be registered in the name of your business and not theirs, and they should definitely have your permission. At 34SP.com, we will only register a domain if a customer asks us to, this could be for anonymity reasons, for example. After the domain is registered you can establish ownership and decide who has exclusive control – for this you would need to insist that your registrar or developer moves the domain to an account that is solely for your use – and then you need to change the password pretty quick.

It sounds complicated and long-winded – and the truth is it is – that’s why we’d suggest registering it yourself.

(2) If a staff member owns it

This shouldn’t be a problem unless they then leave the company. If someone leaves under tricky circumstances and they happen to own your domain, you could find yourself in a tricky situation. The employee could potentially claim ownership of the domain, disable access to it, intercept emails, and even redirect your customers to another site that can be damaging to your business’ reputation.

However, if the person listed as the domain contact has a “fiduciary responsibility” to the business, e.g. they’re an owner, officer, or corporate director – then you are in luck. These people legally have to act in the interests of the company, which gives you a degree of legal protection against what happens to you domain.

So if you have your own domain for your business and you’re feeling unsure, the first port of call is checking the ownership. Even if it’s not your name and details written down, it’s fairly uncommon for businesses to find it difficult to get this changed – whether that be by a registrar or a former employee. If it doesn’t work out like this, however, it might be time to call a lawyer. Getting your domain back this way can, of course, be costly, but it will be well worth it in the long run.

For legal reference on what to do in the case of a domain dispute, it would be wise to refer to ICANN’s advice and rules around the issue.

Daniel Foster is the technical director at hosting company and domain name registrar 34SP.com.

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