20 FAQs about domain name disputes
- What are internet domain names and how do they work?
- Do we need to register a domain name?
- How do we choose a domain name?
- How do we check whether the domain name we've chosen is available?
- What can we do if someone has already registered the domain name we want?
- How do we register a domain name?
- Who should we use to register a domain name?
- How do we buy a domain name from someone who has already registered it?
- How much does a domain name cost?
- Once we have registered a domain name, what problems should we look out for?
- What do we need to do to maintain our domain name?
- What are the risks of getting into a domain name dispute and how can we minimise them?
- How is it decided who has the best right to a disputed domain name?
- What can we do if someone is using our trade mark to attract visitors to their website?
- What should we do if someone is using a similar domain name to profit from our brand or take advantage of our customers?
- What should we do if someone is using a similar domain name to abuse our business?
- What dispute resolution procedures are there for domain name disputes and how do they work?
- Is it better to use a dispute resolution procedure for a domain name dispute or to go to court?
- If we go to court over a domain name dispute, which country's laws apply?
- What should we do if another business claims they have the right to one of our domain names?
1. What are internet domain names and how do they work?
A domain name forms your website address and part of your email address, like ourcompany.co.uk. Your domain name enables other people to find your website or send emails to you.
Each domain name has two parts. The first part can be any combination of letters and numbers, between three and 63 characters long. You can also include hyphens, as long as they aren't at the start or end of the domain.
Domain names are not case sensitive, so upper and lower-case letters are treated the same. Some domain names can contain non-Latin characters, such as Chinese or Arabic.
Most businesses try to choose a domain name that relates to them, such as the name of their company or product (see 3).
The second part of the name is the domain name extension. This can indicate in which country the name is registered or what kind of organisation is using it.
There are many domain name extensions to choose from, reflecting different locations, industries and concepts:
- There are geographic domain extensions for different countries, like .uk. These may be divided into sub-categories. For example, .co.uk is intended for use by commercial organisations in the UK, while .org.uk is intended for non-profit organisations. You can also have the shorter, simpler .uk.
- There are many international or 'generic' domain extensions for different types of organisation. For example, .com is the most common generic extension. In recent years, many new domain extensions have become available.
Most extensions can be used by anyone, but others are restricted. For example, you can only register a domain name ending .aero if you are in the aviation industry. From Brexit day (11pm on 29 March 2019), when the UK leaves the EU, UK entities and individuals with .eu domain extentions will no longer be able to register new .eu domain names, or renew existing ones. Nor will it be possible to redirect traffic from an existing .eu domain name to a new domain name.
Only the following are allowed to register .eu domain names:
- Undertakings with a registered office, central administration or principal place of business in the EU
- Organisations established in the EU without prejudice to the application of national law
- Individuals living in the EU
2. Do we need to register a domain name?
Strictly speaking, no. But realistically, a domain name is an important part of your company's online presence and branding.
If you have a website, it needs an address. Similarly, if you want to send and receive email, you need an email address.
Unless you register a domain name, you will have to use addresses allocated by your internet service provider (ISP) or email supplier.
For example, your ISP might let you use the website address ourcompany.ispname.com and email addresses like [email protected]. However, addresses like these have several disadvantages:
- They do not give you a professional image.
- If you change your ISP, you may have to change website and email addresses.
- Customers will not be able to find your website by guessing the address.
Registering a domain name helps overcomes these disadvantages.
Choosing the right domain name can also help establish rights to your trading names or trade marks (see 3) and prevents other businesses from using that domain name.
3. How do we choose a domain name?
Ideally, you want a domain name that reinforces your brand and is easy to remember. An obvious option is to base your domain name on the name of your company, a trading name you use, or a trade mark you have registered.
You will also need to decide which domain name extension(s) to use (see 1). Most UK businesses use .co.uk or .com. An individual guessing your website address is most likely to try these endings.
In 2014, it became possible to simply have .uk as your extension - so your website can live at ourcompanyname.uk. If you own an existing .co.uk domain name, you have first refusal on the .uk equivalent until June 2019.
However, there's a growing number of domain extensions to choose from. These include eyecatching extensions like .london, .email or .today, plus industry-specific options like .photography, .accountants or .plumbing.
You can find a list of the different .uk extensions on the Nominet website. Nominet administers most UK domain names.
There's also a complete list of domain extensions on the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) website.
You may want to consider registering several domain names. For example:
- You might want to register a different domain for each of your brands.
- You may want to register domains with several different extensions. For example, ourcompany.com and ourcompany.co.uk. This makes it easier for customers to find your website, and helps stop anyone else registering domain names similar to yours.
- You may also want to register different spellings or common mis-spellings of your company or brand name.
- If you trade internationally, you may want to register the local versions of your domain name (eg ourcompany.fr) where possible.
You will only be able to register a domain name if it has not already been registered by someone else (see 4).
There may also be restrictions: for example, the generic ending .aero can only be used by organisations in the aviation industry. Some countries only allow businesses in that country to register domain names with that country ending. When the UK leaves the EU, UK entities and individuals with .eu domain extentions will no longer be able to register new .eu domain names, or renew existing ones.
Also keep in mind that registering a domain name does not give you definitive ownership. Your registration could be challenged if someone else feels they have a better right to the domain name, or claims you are misusing the domain name (see 13).
Avoid registering any domain name that uses, or is very similar to, a competitor's trading name or trademark.
4. How do we check whether the domain name we've chosen is available?
Lots of different companies can register domain names for you. Their search tools will usually let you check many domain extensions at once. Good places to start include:
Even if you are only planning to register one domain name, such as ourcompany.co.uk, it's wise to check variations of this name such as those ending in .com, .ltd.uk, .plc.uk and so on.
If similar domains have been registered, make sure there is unlikely to be any conflict between you and the organisation that has registered them (see 13).
5. What can we do if someone else has already registered the domain name we want?
If the domain name is registered to another business which has a good claim to use it, your best option may be to choose another domain name.
If you are starting a new business and your trading names are not yet established, you could also consider changing your trading names to match a domain name that is available.
If, however, you still want a domain name that someone else has registered, you have three main options:
- Wait for the domain to expire, then register it for yourself.
- Try and buy the domain name from the organisation that has registered it.
- If you have a stronger claim to the domain, you may be able to use a dispute resolution procedure or take court action, to have it transferred to you.
6. How do we register a domain name?
Domain names must be registered with the appropriate domain name administrator. For example, .co.uk domain names are registered with Nominet.
It's not generally possible to deal directly with a domain name administrator, so instead you can register domain names via domain name registration companies. There are many of these to choose from.
Look for a company that is an accredited registrar, or an authorised reseller for an accredited registrar, and that offers the right terms and conditions for you (see 7).
The registration process is relatively straightforward. You can register a domain online - you will need to provide contact details, such as your name and address.
You will also need to pay a registration fee. This varies depending on the type of domain name you are buying.
Typically, .co.uk domain names cost around £5 per year and .com domains cost £10 - £15 per year. Some extensions can be much more expensive.
If your domain name supplier is also providing other services (like web hosting), a domain name might be included with your package.
Be aware that registering a domain name does not mean that you own it. You simply have the right to use it for a certain period.
You will have to renew your registration periodically. It's also possible for other organisations to challenge your right to use the domain name, although if you take care when choosing your domain then this is unlikely (see 10).
Always choose a provider that will register the domain in your company's own name. Some providers register domains under their names, which can make it harder for you to retain control of the domain (see 7).
7. Who should we use to register a domain name?
There are many domain name suppliers to choose from.
When selecting a supplier, try to make sure they are a registrar for the type of domain name you want to buy. At the very least, make sure they are an authorised reseller for an accredited registrar.
Carefully check your supplier's terms and conditions. In particular:
- It is important that the domain name is registered in your name and with your contact details, not the name of the agent. This helps protect your rights to the domain name and reduces the risk of administrative problems.
- Check you will have the right to move your registration to another agent if you choose, and what the charges for doing this would be.
- Review the charges in detail. As well as the initial registration charge, you will have to pay renewal fees. You may also be charged if you need to change your administrative details.
8. How do we buy a domain name from someone who has already registered it?
If you want to buy a domain name that someone else already owns, you have three main options:
- Wait for the domain name to expire, then buy it for yourself. This may be possible if the domain name is not currently in use, and the owner has no plans for it. However, it means playing a waiting game and simply hoping the owner lets the registration expire.
- Contact the owner to let them know you're interested in buying it. You can often find their details by using a WHOIS service. Be aware that buying a domain in this way can be complex, and you may find it hard to agree a price. Consider working with an advisor.
- Dispute the domain name's ownership. If you feel you have a good claim to the domain (see 14), you can use a dispute resolution procedure or take court action to gain control of the domain.
Be aware that negotiating to buy the domain name will almost certainly mean that you would no longer be able to use a dispute resolution procedure to get it. Finally, if you do agree a deal, it is essential to ensure that the registration is properly transferred to you.
9. How much does a domain name cost?
Domain name registration fees are generally quite low. Here are some typical annual costs:
- £5 - £10 for UK domains like .co.uk
- £10 - £15 for the widely-recognised .com
- £20 - £50 for industry-specific domains, like .travel or .finance
It's common for domain name suppliers to offer initial discounts but then hike up renewal fees.
If you are buying a domain name from someone else, the purchase price is a matter for negotiation. It's not uncommon for domains to change hands for hundreds or thousands of pounds. Incredibly, insurance.com sold for $35m in 2010.
10. Once we have registered a domain name, what problems do we need to look out for?
It is important to understand that registering a domain name does not mean you own it. You are buying the right to use it for a period of time (usually one to ten years). You will have to renew the registration from time to time (see 11).
It's also possible for you to face a claim from another organisation that feels they have a better right to the name (see 13).
Try to watch out for other people trying to take advantage of you. For example:
- Another company might register a similar domain name to try to steal your customers (see 16)
- Someone might register a similar domain name to abuse your company, or to blackmail you into buying the domain name from them (see 17).
As the number of domain name extensions continues to increase, it's becoming harder to monitor for these problems.
11. What do we need to do to maintain our domain name?
As part of the registration process, you provide administrative details such as a contact name and address, and technical information such as the web hosting service to which you want to point your domain name,
Make sure you keep this information up to date. You will also need to renew your registration periodically. A .uk domain name registration is valid for up to ten years, and the current holder is always given the first option to renew.
Most domain name companies will send renewal notices by email. Many allow you to set up an auto-renewal system, so the domain gets renewed automatically. It's a good idea to use this facility, as even big brands like Emirates occasionally forget to renew their domains.
Once a domain name expires, you have a grace period period during which you can renew. Once that has passed, the domain will be released onto the open market.
If you receive a renewal notice, check it carefully. Some unscrupulous businesses send letters prompting you to authorise renewal (with them). This allows them to take control of your domain name until you pay them a substantial fee.
12. What are the risks of getting into a domain name dispute and how can we minimise them?
The main cause of domain name disputes is the registration of similar names.
The best way to reduce the risk is to take great care over your choice of domain name. Although you cannot register a domain name that someone else has already registered, almost all registrars will accept domain names for registration that are similar to existing names.
In addition, the proliferation of different domain name extensions makes it even easier to register similar domain names: the fact that you have registered the domain name mycompany.co.uk will not stop another business registering mycompany.com, mycompany.ltd.uk and so on.
To minimise the risk of a dispute, avoid registering a domain name that uses a competitor's trading name or trademark. As the internet is an international medium, you should ideally check trading names and trade marks internationally, particularly if you plan to register a 'generic' or international domain name such as mycompany.com.
Be particularly careful about registering a domain name similar to a large company's name or brand. Even if you have a legitimate right to use the domain name, some large companies are aggressive about disputing rights to such names.
Fighting a dispute - even if you win - could cause significant disruption and cost.
If someone does challenge your right to a domain name that you have registered, or if you wish to challenge someone else's right to a domain name, seek legal advice.
13. How is it decided who has the best right to a disputed domain name?
Domain name administrators and registrars operate on a first-come first-served basis.
Over time, using a domain name will in itself establish some rights to that domain name, particularly if you also publicise that domain name (for example, on your letterhead).
However, the fact that someone has registered a domain name does not automatically mean that they have the best right to it. If the domain name incorporates a registered trademark, the owner of that trademark may well have stronger rights to the name.
In many cases, several businesses could have rights to a domain name, particularly when a domain name describes a product rather than using a company name or trademark.
Two other important factors come into play in many domain name disputes.
- You are more likely to win a dispute if you can show that the other party registered it (or is using it) in bad faith. Bad faith might include registering a domain name using your trademark in order to sell it to you (or a competitor), or to pass their website off as being related to your business.
- Large companies, with deep pockets, may be prepared to run up large legal bills pursuing a domain name. If faced with such an opponent, it may be in your interest to negotiate a settlement.
As disputes can be complex, you should take legal advice on your particular circumstances.
14. What can we do if someone is using our trademark to attract visitors to their website?
You are likely to have a strong claim against someone who registers a domain name using your trademark and then uses it to sell similar products.
Even if they have some right to the domain name, you could take court action against them for breaching your intellectual property rights.
The position becomes less clear if the website does not relate to the products covered by your trademark. You will still have a strong claim if they are deliberately passing themselves off as being related to your business.
As this is a complex and changing area of law, you should take advice.
15. What should we do if someone is using a similar domain name to profit from our brand or take advantage of our customers?
If they are using your trademark or deliberately passing themselves off as being related to your business, you have a strong basis for using a dispute resolution procedure or taking court action against them.
If they can claim they are using the domain legitimately, it may be more difficult to take action. Rather than spending time and money on a dispute, you might be better off focusing on promoting your own domain name. An experienced advisor can help you decide whether you have a strong case and what the most appropriate course of action is.
Separately, there can be cases where another domain name is being used to take advantage of your customers. An obvious example is phishing, where phoney emails and a rogue website are used to collect information such as credit card details or security codes.
While you are not responsible for this, you may want to warn your customers if you become aware this is occurring. You may also want to establish an appropriate security policy and tell your customers about it: for example, stating that you will not ask for financial or security details by email.
16. What should we do if someone is using a similar domain name to abuse our business?
If you're very unlucky, a disgruntled customer or employee might set up a website to abuse your company. Larger companies tend to suffer from this kind of attack most often.
Typically, the customer registers a domain name containing the company name and a derogatory word, like companynamesucks.com.
If this happens to you, it may be possible to take action. For example, you could take court action if they have libelled your business. This will involve costs, and may generate additional publicity.
In many cases, your best course might simply be to ignore their activities.
17. What dispute resolution procedures are there for domain name disputes and how do they work?
Each domain name administrator has a dispute resolution procedure. For example, Nominet has a dispute resolution procedure for domain names ending in .uk. Each administrator's procedure will be slightly different, but they follow a similar pattern.
Broadly, to make a claim you need to show that you have a right to the domain name (see 13), and that whoever has registered the name is using it 'abusively' or in bad faith.
Costs and timescales vary. The Nominet UK dispute resolution procedure includes an initial free mediation service. Applying for an expert decision costs £750 (plus VAT), plus any legal fees you incur. Appealing against a decision costs a further £3,000 (plus VAT). You can find out more from the relevant administrator:
- Nominet UK is the administrator for most .uk domain names.
- For names using other country codes, check with the appropriate administrator. Go to the IANA website for more information.
- For generic names such as .com and .org, go to the ICANN website.
Before starting a dispute resolution procedure, take advice on whether this is the best course of action and how best to proceed.
18. Is it better to use a dispute resolution procedure for a domain name dispute or to go to court?
A dispute resolution procedure can only be used if you have rights to a domain name which someone else has registered 'abusively' or in bad faith. By contrast, court action can be taken on other grounds: for example, if someone is breaching your intellectual property rights or libelling you.
In terms of outcomes, successful use of a dispute resolution procedure will result in the domain name being transferred to you. If you want to claim damages, you will need to take court action. Bear in mind that it can be impossible to enforce judgment, particularly against individuals or companies based overseas.
Where there is a choice, using a dispute resolution procedure is generally faster and incurs lower costs. In some cases, you might wish to use both: the successful outcome of a dispute resolution procedure can be presented as evidence in a court case.
19. If we go to court over a domain name dispute, which country's laws apply?
A court case might be heard:
- In the country where the domain name was registered: for example, in the UK for a .uk domain name.
- In the country where the plaintiff suffered damage. For a libel case, this might conceivably be anywhere in the world where the website can be seen.
- In the defendant's home country.
The choice of country can make a significant difference to each party's costs, the prospects of success, and the likely scale of any damages.
At the start of any international dispute, both claimant and defendant may present arguments to the court as to why it should or should not hear the case. Expert advice is essential.
20. What should we do if another business claims they have the right to one of our domain names?
You need to assess the merits of their claim. You also need to think about the costs and likely outcome of any dispute resolution procedure or court case.
Faced with the threat of legal action by a large, well-funded company, smaller businesses often decide that their best course is simply to concede a disputed domain name and to negotiate appropriate settlement terms.
On the other hand, if you have invested significantly in building your internet presence, this may not be a satisfactory outcome - and you may have a strong case for defending a claim.