Do you really own your domain name?

You may have a website, but do you really own it? Who owns the domain name? If you relied on someone else to register the domain name for you, there might be a chance that your are not the owner.

How can I tell if I own my domain?

The best way to find out who owns your domain name is to do a whois lookup. There are many free services online that can do this for you, one that we like is domain tools. Pay particular attention to the line that says registrant as this is the person or entity that owns this domain name. If this isn’t you, than you have a problem.

What does it matter?

Let us run you through a few scenarios (all true, and ones I’ve seen or dealt with in the past year, though names and such have been changed)

Scenario A

Sellco is being bought by Buyco, in the assets, Sellco listed it’s domain name. Upon research into the assets it was determined that Sellco didn’t in fact own the domain name, and the company that does own the domain, ShadyWebCo who built the site, can not be reached and is assumed to no longer be in business. That domain name is, for all intents and purposes, worthless, as no changes can be made to it, and it control can not be regained without significant time, costs, complications and difficulty. Suffice to say this becomes a liability and not an asset.

Scenario B

RealBiz has a website that they rely on for day to day operations. One day it goes down, no reason or explanation. They try to contact ShadyWebCo, the company that built the website only to find out that it is no longer in business. When they contact another web developer, to get the site back up and running (or at least something that they can use), they are told that they can no longer use their domain name as they don’t own it (ShadyWebCodoes). The domain registration expires in 4 years, and they don’t own the domain. They are forced to choose a new domain name, lose traffic and as a result business as a result of losing their original domain.

Scenario C

SuccessCo is expanding, and want their website to better reflect the growing company. Unhappy with their current website and the people managing it, they contact a new company to take over. Unfortunately, the original company, ShadyWebCo, owns the domain name, and refused to release it, and cite a clause in the contract stating that they own all domains. Letters of a legal nature ensue, and after a while, after much cost and time, ShadyWebCo does agree to release the domain.

Scenario D

EstablishedCo realizes their domain name will expire in 2 months, wanting to ensure that it does get renewed, they try to contact ShadyWebCo, their original developer, to get it renewed. ShadyWebCo can’t be reached as they are no longer in business. Unfortunately ShadyWebCo are the registrants of the domain, and so are the owners. The only thing EstablishedCo can do at this stage is wait for the domain to expire, wait for it to be available again and then hopefully register it before some else does.

What do I do if I’m not the registrant?

There are a few things to do, and the first is to contact the person who is.
If they are no longer in business, or are unwilling to help, than the next step is to talk to the registrar (the person with whom the domain was registered) and find out what recourse they offer. Usually they will refer you to the governing body of the TLD (.com, .ca, .net, etc.).
The governing body of the TLD is the next step, and finally start looking at legal options. We really can’t offer more advice, as we are not qualified to do so, and the above should be used as a guideline. The best person to ask would be a lawyer.

From what we’ve seen, it depends a lot on the TLD. CIRA, the governing body for .ca domains does have a recourse for these types of situations, we haven’t really been able to put them to the test yet though.

We can also say, that we’ve seen many cases go against ShadyWebCo, especially if they have charged the client for the domain name. However we have also seen it where the contract signed by both parties explicitly states that the domain name is property of ShadyWebCo. As we said above, for legal advice, best people to advise you would be your lawyers.

How can I make sure this doesn’t happen to me?

Make sure that you register your domain name yourself, or that once the name is registered, you have full control of the account with the domain name. Our policy here is to get our clients to register the domain, and then provide us with the details, or if the client would prefer not to, we register the domain in the clients name on their behalf, and forward them any and all correspondence and login credentials. Even if they don’t know what to do with it (which, in most cases is simply nothing), it is good practice, as they do own their domain name.