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Who really owns your website domain name?

Mark Tomkins - Creative Director at Aubergine
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One of the most common situations we encounter each week managing business and individuals’ websites is trying to understand where their website domain name is registered, where it’s hosted and more importantly who has control over it.

What this inevitably uncovers is something of a silent problem bubbling away under the surface poised to strike just when you don’t expect it.

And that problem is working out who really owns your web domain.

Here’s a typical scenario;

  1. You commission a website developer to get your new business online. You go through the process of naming the business, searching for the available domain names and getting it registered. Because commissioning a new website when you’re setting up a new business is not something you do that often you just go with the flow as you invariably want the site up and running as quickly as possible.
  2. The website developer registers the domain for you and points it at his hosting platform to get you up and running. Excellent.

Nothing untoward so far you might think.

Stop. Check to see to who he/she has registered the domain name with. All too often we see that the website developer has registered the domain name in their own domain registration account (which, in itself isn’t a problem) but they may have used the default account details to register the domain name for speed. This happens a lot.

That means in the eyes of the law, they own your domain name and not you, even although you have paid him for it. Domains registered are the property of the registrant, plain and simple*.

Here’s what typically happens next;

  1. For whatever reason, you and the website developer part company. Maybe he goes out of business, maybe you choose to part ways. He’s hosting your domain name and your website (and possible your email, too).
  2. Taking back control of your domain name then proves a big challenge. If he has gone out of business and you can’t get hold of him and the domain is in his dormant domain registration account (let’s say that’s 123-reg for the purpose of the exercise) you will not be able to take control and ownership of it without he or she changing the ownership details and transferring it to you. This takes time, effort and an inclination to actually do it. Very often the latter is lacking.

It’s worth noting that 123-reg (for example) will not enter into any discussions whatsoever with you about being the rightly owner of the domain name despite explaining the scenario and offering evidence of being the business owner. They are merely acting in accordance with the law. Anyone could call up and pass themselves off as someone else. Focus your energies on trying to get the ex-developer to re-register it in your name.

If the domain name is a .com, unless you can get hold of the departed website developer your options are now very limited. However, if you had the foresight to also register the .co.uk version of your domain name, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Unlike .com domains (that are essentially self-policed although issued by ICAAN) .co.uk domains are controlled by the UK domain authority, Nominet. The people here are proper, decent humans that allow you to explain the situation and will assist in you getting control of your domain name.

There are processes that you will need to follow but in most cases it is successful.

However, if it is a .com domain name this is where you start to consider registering a new domain name with a view to waiting for the domain to expire and become available to register in your name.

This could be years.

So, what can you do?

  1. Firstly, set yourself up with a domain name account – 123-reg are about the best for domain name-only services. You’ll need this to get the domain transferred to, anyway.
  2. In 123-reg, search for your domain – it will come up as ‘taken’. There’ll be an option that says ‘I own this domain, transfer it to 123-reg’. Do this and follow all the processes they provide. This will trigger a transfer email to the ex-developer. If, and only if, he is responsive he will then have to log into his account, unlock it and issue you with an EPP transfer code which he’ll email you and it will allow the transfer. All domain registration places do it all slightly differently but this is the normal process.

However, if the ex-developer does not respond at all, you can request to ‘watch’ the domain so that when it becomes available you will be notified. If it’s a .com and you can’t get hold of the ex-developer, that’s as far as you can go. It’s time to think of a back up plan for a new domain name. Another suffix of the name (.co.uk, .co, .uk etc. may have to do or you can be brand-creative!)

 

Best practice approach to registering a new domain name

However, if you are starting up for the first time, follow these golden rules;

  1. Once you’ve decided on your domain name we recommend that you set yourself up with a domain registration account for the business – not the individual. People come and go but the domain name is intrinsically linked to the business. Register the domain through this account and make sure that all the details of ownership are of the business. It’s OK to put the website developer’s details down against the technical contact if you like – this does not give him any ownership rights on the domain.
  2. If you are not comfortable doing this yourself, your website developer can register the domain for you but get him or her to log into your domain account and make sure it’s registered in your business name, not his.
    He’ll probably want to change the nameservers or DNS records of the domain to point it to his hosting platform at that time anyway. You can always change the login credentials once he’s done what he needs to for good order.
  3. Alternatively, you can ask him to register the domain for you through his registration account but make sure you give him all the details of the business by which to register the domain name.
  4. Once the website is completed and live and you are happy with the end result, log back into your domain registration account and make sure it is all still set with your details as the registrant.
  5. Remember: YOU are responsible for making sure that your domain registration renewals are kept up to date, not your website developer. It is a small price to pay but worth it in the long run. If you do not renew the domain when the system tells you, you run the risk of losing not only your domain name, but the website, email and the business reputation.
  6. Website developers are well-practiced at managing domain registration renewals and so this is why it is very often better to have them manage the domain renewals for you on your behalf but they key thing here being that the domain name is in your business’s name, not the developer’s.

One of your most valuable assets

Your website domain name is one of the most valuable assets to the business and yet very often they are treated poorly and with little protection. Think about what would happen if, overnight, your website, online business and reputation and emails suddenly stopped and were irrecoverable  – do you have a back up plan? Not many do, so making sure your domain names are registered to your business and not individuals is vital.

If you aren’t sure of who owns your domain name, for a .com domain head over to the WHOIS tool operated by ICANN: https://whois.icann.org/en.

For .co.uk, go to Nominet’s equivalent lookup tool: https://www.nominet.uk/whois/

 

*At the beginning of this article we walked about ownership of a domain being that of the registrant in the eyes of the law. This is the case in most instances. However, there have been some cases that have gone to Court where individuals have registered domain names with brand names in them and those brand owners have taken the registrant to Court to prevent them from using it and [ultimately] taking control of it. They cite copyright ownership of the brand and therefore the individual (or company) that’s using the domain (or cybersitting on it) as in breach of copyright. Usually the case is settled out of Court and the domain is handed over for an undisclosed figure but the principle remains the same. It’s incredibly hard to take over a domain that you feel is yours but it’s not registered in your name.