By Fiona Dott, solicitor in the Corporate & Commercial team.
Rather than using commercially unattractive web addresses such as 9126.96.36.1998, we have domain names.
Domain names could be a business name, trade mark or slogan. Domain names are often valuable commodities, with the most sought-after names changing hands for large sums of money.
Whether you want a website to be your shop window, to act as your data collection portal or to effect a direct sales channel, you will first need to consider the registration of at least one domain name. But the story should not end there. A good domains policy should be reviewed on an ongoing basis in order to consider whether any additional, but related, domain names should obtained.
The aim of these additional domain names would be to protect the main web address and ultimately, the business behind it. Consider the hypothetical web address ‘www.sharpscissors.co.uk’ registered by a hairdressing business. The following week, either by accident or by design, another business registers the address ‘www.sharpscissors.com’. The practical effect may well be to divert business from the original address. What if the address ‘www.sharp-scissors.co.uk’ was also registered? There may well be a legal solution for both of these examples, through trade mark law. It is also possible that the original business will be approached with a request for money for the transfer of the conflicting web addresses. This is known as 'cybersquatting'.
There are now many types of domain to consider. So-called top level domains (such as '.org' and '.uk'), can be obtained. Some of these domains (for example, '.com' or '.eu') allow businesses to present an image that they are international or at least that they supply their products or services internationally.
Domain names within your domain portfolio could also include hyphens and the word 'the' as a prefix. Increasingly, common misspellings are being added to a business' basket of domain names to direct more customers to their website and to guard against so-called typosquatting. Perhaps the most famous example of alleged typosquatting was the domain name goggle.com which Google omitted to register itself.
Until recently, short domain names, with single numbers, single letters and two letters, such as 'aa.co.uk' or '1.org.uk', have not been available.
Nominet, the internet registry for '.uk' domain names, has opened the application process for the previously reserved short '.uk' domains. Nominet will soon allow the public at large to request short .uk domains.
Even if your business name would not work as a short domain, bear in mind that whenever new domains are released, it inevitably opens the door for potential abuse by cybersquatters. Often cybersquatters will register a domain in the hope of selling it back to the brand owner who fears that the cybersquatter will cause commercial damage to the brand. Competitive businesses may also register domain names which allow them to advance into an existing marketplace by leveraging off an existing brand. Again, there may be a legal solution to this through the law of passing-off.
There is no doubt that the cost of obtaining and renewing a portfolio of domain names is relatively low when balanced against legal costs of enforcing your rights against cybersquatters or others.
It is worth considering your approach to domain names and whether any new names should be registered. Of course, having obtained a basket of domain names, you should review it constantly to ensure that it meets the needs of your business as it grows.