One of the first things you do when launching a site is purchase a domain name. How is that for an obvious statement? Before you commit to a domain, there are certain domain name legal issues you need to take into account when making your choice.
Domains were once considered a critical piece of the ranking process. If you could obtain “ChicagoDentist.com”, there was a pretty good chance you could rank number one for this phrase in the search results of Google within a month or two. This possibility is no longer the case. Google has de-emphasized the impact of keywords in domain names. Some people now believe exact keyword match domains can hurt you, so don’t be fanatical about seeking out such domains.
People tend to base their website logos and names on their domain. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is important to understand the words making up the domain cannot be generic, or the Patent & Trademark Office will reject the filing. Returning to our example, you could not trademark ChicagoDentist.com. “Chicago” and “Dentist” are simply too generic. In contrast, “TheLaughingDentist.com” would be eligible to be trademarked.
Much like a vanity license plate on your car, the clever name you come up with might not be a great choice for a domain. I’ll give you a very personal example. Consider the domain for this site. It reflects who I am – a Southern California Internet lawyer. Despite this, the “so cal” element apparently confuses people. People constantly ask me what part of the country I am in. In short, the domain represents a failed effort to be clever. Try to avoid the same mistake with your domain.
Many people buy the domains in their personal name. While not illegal, this act exposes you to potential liability in any dispute concerning the domain name or trademark based upon it. You should own all domain names in the name of your business entity.
There are variations of every domain name. From different identifiers such as “.net” and “.biz” to plurals and misspellings, any website faces the risk of a scammer setting up other sites on variations of the domain name. I can put a stop to this by sending cease and desist letters, but it is a costly proposition. A better approach for most clients is simply to buy the different variations upfront to prevent anyone from elbowing into your terrain.
One significant error I see from time to time has to do with who owns the domain. Let’s be clear. The only party that should own your domain is you or your business entity. Your web designer, marketing person, lawyer or any other party should not own the domain. Would you give the title in your car to your mechanic? Hell no!
If you let someone else own your domain, they own it. How will you ever sell it? How will you keep them from locking you out if the site becomes popular? Don’t let this happen.
A domain is like a marriage. Once you “buy it” and start using it for your business, it is a difficult and costly process to change to a different domain. Given this, take the time to think through the domain name legal issues mentioned above before you click the purchase button.
Richard A. Chapo, Esq.
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