Who Owns YOUR Domain Name?

Domain Name with Locks

Who Owns YOUR Domain Name?

Andrew,’ ‘George’ & Lessons Learned the Hard Way

Andrew (not his real name)has a service business. He’s great at what he does (accounting and taxes) but he’s not particularly tech-saavy (in his mind). Andrew’s neighbor “has a friend” who has offered to help Andrew get started with a web site. Andrew is thrilled, since he knows  he needs to have some sort of web site where he can direct prospective customers.

The “friend” — whom we’ll call George — tells Andrew the first thing he needs is a domain name. Andrew has been in business for a number of years; he wants to use his business name so people can find him easily. Fortunately, his name is unique and he finds that the domain name is available. He calls George with the name. A couple of days later George tells Andrew that he has registered the domain name for him and he is “good to go” with getting his web site put together. Andrew owes George $20 for the registration.

Fast forward 1 year

Andrew got busy with running his business, but did manage to get a web developer to put up a small 5-page web site. The developer emails Andrew to tell him he needs to renew his domain name. Andrew is stumped! He has no idea how to do that and tells his developer.

After a quick phone call, Andrew realizes he needs to contact George, since Andrew has no idea which registrar George used… Then he gets more bad news: Andrew’s developer does a quick search and finds the domain registration (it’s public information from Whois.com) but Andrew’s name is nowhere to be found on the Whois records… The only name on the record is George…

Andrew starts to get worried when he tries to contact George. Apparently he has moved; his phone number is no good, and Andrew’s neighbor has no idea where George has gone. It gets worse: Andrew finds out from his web developer that unless he can prove his domain is “really his” there is no way he can renew the domain, which means it will expire.

Andrew might get lucky enough and be the one to re-register it when it becomes available again. This will take vigilance and watching the domain records every day until his name becomes available again. However, his web site will not be available for the duration between expiration and re-registration…which will likely mean lost business, and at the very least bad PR with people who are looking for Andrew’s web site!

The above account is true…only the names were changed. Unfortunately this scenario plays out hundreds of times a day all over the place.

In practice (I’d say “legally” but I’m not a lawyer), this means the “domain owner” is NOT the web site owner as far as the registrar is concerned. In this specific case, the domain is owned by — you guessed it — “the friend,” the only name on the registrar’s record.

For the helpless business owner, the harsh reality is this: the web site owner is NOT the domain owner! It all comes down to “proving” the legal ownership to the domain…If your name is not listed anywhere with the registrar, they don’t even know about you.

Now, I can hear some of you saying, “What about the Contact form or About page…with your picture??? That should be worth something!”

That’s a fair point, especially in the above web owner’s case, where the damage had already been done. However, that would inevitably require going to court, which is not only time-consuming but costly. And, the legal jurisdiction issue could get quite complicated. Remember, “the Web” is truly global. My registrar of choice is located in Australia. I live and work in the US…Who decides what jurisdiction covers any legal issues? And, more importantly, why would I even want to have to go there when the solution is so simple?

Lessons Learned: Preventive Practices

So the message here is this:

Know SOMETHING about whatever technical or business process you are considering, as a part of the evaluation process.

It’s perfectly fine to have technical specialists design your web site, develop and even write content for it, update it. (Watch for my future article on OUTSOURCING[I’ll link here when it’s published]; there are many times it makes perfect business sense).

But when it comes to something like the administration of your business — the business behind the web site — and often the foundation of your business, do some basic research so you generally know what’s going on…before finalizing or committing! You might find out the “investment” is not worth the returns…but you definitely won’t know if you don’t take time up front for this research process.

The Right Way to Register Your Domain

These “ownership” questions could have been avoided had the web site owner in the above scenario done some “homework.” For example, when registering a domain name — once you settle on an available name (& pay their fee) — you complete a form on the registrar’s web site…The information is pretty straightforward:

  • Administrative Contact
  • Technical Contact
  • Business Contact

Now, your “technical” contact person should NEVER be in all of these places! I’m sure that’s what happened to our hapless web owner in the above example. It’s just good business sense to have some sort of checks and balances in place…

On My Soapbox: A Question of Professional Ethics

In my 30-plus years working in the computer industry, I have seen my share of similar “horror stories,” way before “the Web” existed. It is extremely unfortunate that there are unthinking, uncaring, or just plain unethical people in this world…From MY perspective, stories like these give everyone in the “computer industry” a black eye, which is really unfortunate…It’s the old adage about “the bad apple…”

In my professional opinion, the appropriate process in the above scenario would be to INSIST, as a responsible web developer/consultant (and especially as a friend doing a favor), that my client’s information be included on at least 1 of those “Contacts” above.

Typically, as a technical consultant (web designer/web developer/web master), it is sufficient to only be listed as the “Technical Contact” to handle highly technical issues or security issues, such as the hosting company’s server being compromised in some way. In a case where I had been asked to also provide general “Business Consulting” then it might be appropriate to also be the Business Contact. But, it would never be appropriate to omit the client — who is the legitimate web site owner — from the contact record completely!

An Educated Client is a Great Client

But, I would take this a step further. I’ve never had a client yet who declined to include their contact information in domain registration once the “process” was explained to them…My approach is to “educate” my clients…Part of this education is to explain the above process and how to avoid problems. But, as I said it goes further.

All the contact info in the world is no good if it is not current.

Now, before you dismiss this as “obvious,” consider the following process. What frequently happens is this:

You start a business, design your business name/logo, craft a suitable domain name and register it, get your web site designed and “live”, then… go on about “running the business” just like Andrew…

Rarely do people give a second thought to the domain name until it’s time to renew it…then they scramble to find the administrative email the registrar sent when the name was originally registered, possibly as long as 5 years ago.

Hopefully, they printed out the email and filed it in a secure and accessible location, since emails tend to “disappear” over time (the hard drive crashes, or gets replaced for a larger one; the computer is replaced with something newer, etc.). Are you still using the same computer you had 5 years ago? I know I’m not…

When Your Domain is Not Your Domain

Registering “in-demand” domain names and selling them is BIG business…

It is crucial to treat web-related business information with just as much security and business sense as your bank account! A very real scenario that could result, given the case I cited above, is to find your domain has been “sold to the highest bidder.”

Don’t underestimate the possibility of this happening! Registering “in-demand” domain names and selling them is BIG business!…There have been a number of court cases in recent years where celebrity names (professional athletes, actors, singers, writers, public figures) have been registered by someone else (not the celebrity) then offered to the celebrity for a ridiculously-inflated price tag.

Consider the consequences of this happening to you. At the “least” there’s the hassle and cost of going to court to prove the domain is yours. But, consider how debilitating it would be to find that your domain had been sold and your business web site has beentaken down.” If you only operate “online” this would obviously be catastrophic!

Actions You Can Take Right Now!

Please…take some time to understand the process, whether it’s domain registration or something else…

Bookmark this article; print it; share it with your friends and associates.

Take time, right now, to dig up your domain information (if it’s still in an email, print it out and file it) and make sure YOU are the Administrative Contact…This is a fairly simple process, depending on the Registrar. All of the information on updating your Contact Information should be clearly indicated in that email, along with passwords to gain access to your domain account.

If you have had any experiences — or questions — about domain name registration or ownership, I’d like to hear about them. Share them in the Comments.


About the Author

Karen McCamyKaren is a WordPress Trainer & Coach. She currently teaches WP101 in Los Angeles, and a Girl-Develop-It class where you build your own website from the ground up!View all posts by Karen McCamy →