Domain Names – Possession Is 9/10ths Of The Law

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As 2013 was winding down, the law firm of Dewey, Cheatum & Howe also known as www.BestLawfirmEver.com was calculating its partners’ year end distributions. Before the ink was dry, Dewey announced he was leaving, taking an associate AND the law firm website www.BestLawfirmEver.com. Cheatum and Howe were convinced that the domain name and the website stayed with them and the other lawyers at the firm because their client was the web designer Dee Sine. Who wins?

Who Owns It? Generally, Cheatum & Howe can check WhoIs to find out the registrant’s name for www.BestLawFirmEver.com, In this case the registrant “owner” is probably Dee Sine, the website designer, who registered the website name and signed the contract with the registrar.

So, what’s a registrar? A domain name registrar is a service allowing official registration of a desired website domain name unique to you. Originally, there was just one company that registered domain names. Now there are literally hundreds accredited by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to allocate IP addresses and manage the Domain Name System. The Domain Name System is what allows you to reach a website by typing in its name, rather than its numerical IP address.

What if you are NOT the legal owner of your domain name? When you searched WhoIs, if your name did not appear as “registrant,” you should be able to identify the person who is. And, hopefully you are still on good terms with them. Most probably Dee will cooperate if asked to change the domain name registration over to your name. However, a disreputable web developer or one that simply goes out of business may make it difficult, if not impossible, for you to switch vendors. 

Tilting the Scales in Your Favor

Register yourself as the owner of the domain name. If you are not the current owner, have the registrar and the current domain name registrant agree to change the domain name registration to your company name. Once the domain name registration is in your company, address the ownership / transfer of the domain name in your organizational documents – that agreement between the owners that details what happens if one or more owners wants a company “divorce.” Should Cheatum& Howe be required to start with a new domain name, it takes a lot of time and SEO (search engine optimization) effort to start showing up in the browser searches.

Know that a registrar cannot cancel, suspend or transfer a domain name without permission in its contract documents or without consent of the named domain registrant or a court order. If your partner-registrar refuses, the first place to look is your entity / organization agreement. If you don’t have one or if the transfer of domain name registration is not addressed, you will need to look to an attorney familiar with these claims to get a court order, or perhaps contact ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and settle the matter using the Uniform Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP).

By the way, just because Cheatum & Howe were able to persuade Dee Sine to transfer registration of the domain name to them, their troubles are not yet over! Without an agreement detailing otherwise, the partners can still argue over who developed and refined the content, who owns the backlinks, who owns any articles written and paid for by the old lawfirm and who owns or controls the Google Places Listing.

And, don’t forget to renew your domain name registration. Use it or lose it.