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Domain Names and Branding: How to Secure your Online Presence

Nov 15, 2022 | Firm News

In 1999 – when the internet first debuted – there was just one website, and that website had its own unique domain name. The following year, there were 3,760 websites. Since then, the market for domain registrations and hosting services has exploded, with some domains being bought and sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Siteefy.com cites 341.7 million domain name registrations in Q4 2021. Simply put, there are literally millions of websites with unique domain names.

A domain name is to a website what the specific street address is to a home or business. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) describes a domain name as “a unique name that forms the basis of the uniform resource locators (URLs) that people use to find resources on the Internet (e.g., web pages, email servers, images, and videos).” Not all domain names are the same either. Siteefy also reports that there are some 1,591 different registered domain types including .com, .net, .org, .edu, .me and .co. Each domain or domain extension caters to a specific industry, community or service. For example, an accounting firm might register a domain using the .accountants extension instead of .com.

What Is A Domain Name Dispute?

Sometimes, disputes arise over domain usage. This can occur when multiple parties claim the right to the same domain or to a similar domain. One such practice known as cybersquatting is when a party buys a domain that is similar to the domain or brand of an established company with the hopes of selling to the company for profit at a later date.  A case of cybersquatting exists when the URLs lead to a parked website or unfinished sites with advertisement links. Rather than using the registered domain for a legitimate purpose, the registrant is simply waiting for that company to become aware of the site and will then sell it to that company for an exaggerated price. 

Another similar practice called typosquatting sees a party buy a domain name nearly identical in spelling to that of another major domain in the hopes of receiving traffic via the misspelling. Typosquatters have also been known to use those slightly misspelled domains, sometimes adding just a single letter, to send emails in which they impersonate the employees of a business. This practice, referred to as phishing, has often been used to target the business’s employees or to impersonate the business itself. The damage typosquatters may cause can be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and can seriously harm the online reputation of a business.

However, similarity alone does not necessarily indicate cybersquatting or typosquatting. For example, Major League Soccer uses the domain MLSsoccer.com – even though the word “soccer” may seem repetitive – because an independent real estate resource had already claimed the MLS.com domain for itself. That doesn’t mean MLS.com is using the domain maliciously; it simply means that they obtained rights to the domain before Major League Soccer did. 

In short, if there is evidence of bad faith, a domain name dispute can arise and the complaining party may file a complaint and ask for the suspension or transfer of the problematic domain. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), just over 5,000 such complaints were filed in 2021. 

What To Do If You’re Looking Into Domain Names

If you’re considering buying a domain name for a website, you will first have to find a domain that is publicly available. Any domain name registrar such as GoDaddy, Namecheap, Wix or Domain.com – and a variety of other websites – will allow you to do this. However, selecting and purchasing a domain name is just one step in the process. Conducting a thorough domain name search, one designed to address claims of confusion or future claims of infringement, minimizes the risk of a domain name dispute or lawsuit being filed against you or your business down the road. 

If you are considering a domain name that is registered by someone else or is already in use, you may need to follow a legal course of action.

What To Do If The Domain Name You Want Is Already In Use

If you’re considering a domain name that is already taken, your options for securing it are limited. At best, you can offer to buy the domain from the current domain holder. Be prepared for them to refuse to sell or to ask for a steep selling price. However, using a middleman, such as an attorney, can allow you to remain anonymous and prevent the current owner from recognizing your business and holding the domain hostage.

Another option for securing a domain name already in use is to pursue legal action. This will take a significant amount of work and depends on a number of factors, including whether the competing domain holder is infringing on your intellectual property rights, is offering similar goods or services, has no rights or legitimate interests in respect of the domain name or is using the domain in bad faith. A lawyer or legal team specializing in domain disputes will be able to guide you through this process.

Seek Legal Help With Patterson Thuente

If you find yourself pursuing or being targeted in a domain name dispute, consider the legal experts at Patterson Thuente to guide you through the process. We understand the nuances and intricacies of online brand protection including domain name disputes, cybersquatting, inappropriate linking, mark dilution, meta-data piracy, search-related misappropriation and social media implications. We can also help you secure your desired domain name and protect your online presence and brand through rigorous domain monitoring. For patent, trademark and brand protection legal counsel backed by years of experience and success, trust Patterson Thuente IP. 

While the information above is a good start, the best way to receive guidance tailored to your unique situation is by contacting an attorney. Schedule a meeting with one of our attorneys today. 

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