Who REALLY Owns Your Domain Name?

For most small businesses, their domain name is a valuable part of their marketing identity. Whether you paid through the nose for a premium one, or scooped it up for ninety-nine cents, your domain name probably represents a more significant investment than you realize.

Don't believe me?

How much money have you spent on print ads that feature your domain name? On radio spots? On TV spots? On t-shirts, caps, coasters, and koozies? How about your letterhead, business cards, and envelopes? Brochures? Billboards? Fleet graphics? Little league team jerseys? What about that enormous sign out front?

What would it mean to your bottom line if your domain name suddenly went away, or if another web site suddenly appeared at it? What would it cost to re-shoot all those TV spots, to re-record all those radio spots, and to re-print all that other material, if the person who really owns your domain name decided to do something else with it?

You might be surprised to learn how many businesses don't actually own the domain into which they've poured so much time and effort building their brand. You might even be one of those businesses and you don't even realize it.

If I've got your attention, you might want to keep reading to find out who really owns your domain, and how to protect it.

To begin with, domain names aren't bought. A more apt description is that they're rented. You can rent a domain name by the year, or for a number of years.

You purchase domains from a registrar. GoDaddy is the best-known domain registrar, but there are thousands of them out there. Most large web-hosting companies, like BlueHost and HostGator, also offer domain registration services.

But who registered your domain? Did you do it, or did your web developer do it?

You can see who really owns your domain by clicking this link, entering your domain name in the field, and clicking "Find It". When you see the results of your search, look down and find "Registrant Name" and "Registrant Organization".

Is it you? Or somebody else?

Whoever is listed beside those two entries owns your domain. It's that simple. If it's not you, then you may have a problem.

If your name isn't beside one of those entries, then the person or company whose name is can do anything they wish with your domain name.

At Gri5th Media, we've lost count of the number of times a new client has hired us to develop a new web site, only to find that their domain is owned by their previous web designer. Sometimes that designer promptly turns over ownership of the domain, but other times they've been quite uncooperative or fell off the face of the earth..

How does this happen? Well, some designers maintain a registrar account inside which they purchase their clients' domains. After they purchase it, they develop your site and launch it at the domain they purchased. They walk you through it, you're happy (and probably happy to be done with it), so you forget about it. Hey, your web site's up! Who cares about the details? You've got a business to run!

Months or years go by, until that day when your web designer goes out of business. Or maybe they decide to change careers, and shut down their shop. Or, as we've seen more times than we can shake a stick at, you have a spat with them. You decide to take your business elsewhere. That's when you discover—much to your surprise—that they, not you, in fact own "your" domain name.

Now you're in a tight spot.

Oh sure, you can probably establish legal ownership, but in all likelihood that will require lawyers (and lawyer fees). It could take weeks, maybe months, before you take full ownership of your domain. In the meantime, what does the other "owner" do with it? Do they forward it to a competitor? To an unsavory site that could ruin your reputation?

Here's our policy: For a new domain, we make sure our client owns it. If they already have a registrar account, we make sure they purchase the domain from inside of it. If they don't have a registrar account, we help them set one up. For an existing domain, we check to see if our client owns it. If so, we look at its expiration date, and alert them if they need to renew it. If they don't own it, we help them transfer ownership from whomever registered it. Usually that requires just a few friendly email exchanges, but if it requires a more "aggressive" approach, well, we help out there, too.

If you thought you owned your domain but discover you don't, don't feel bad. Even Google made that mistake.

But your domain name IS part of your identity. It's valuable. Probably very valuable, to you. Make sure you own it.