Do you know who owns your business web domain?

Do you know who owns your company’s web domain? This is often not as straightforward as it first seems. There will be a company from which you buy the domain (these are called domain registrars). But, who has the account with the registrar? And, who is the registered owner of the domain?


The issue of who manages your web domain account is different from who owns it. We manage lots of web domains for clients and tend to use the same registrar for all of them. But, all of the domains are registered in the client’s business name. That means the domain is theirs to do with as they wish. If they wish to leave us, then it’s our job to ensure this is done on the best possible terms.


Having ownership of a company that matches the domain name will not be enough to prove ownership. Especially with so many similarly named companies in existence typically.

 

Who owns your web domain?


We find it bizarre that this is even a question nowadays, but a client of ours had an incident recently which reminded us how important digital assets are to businesses. And, how unscrupulous some business service providers can be.


The answer, ultimately, is it depends on whose name was entered when the domain was purchased. If you didn’t purchase the domain directly, then several additional complexities will exist. Let’s illustrate this with our example.

 

A complex web: An example of uncertainty over web domain ownership


Our client is a multi-site business having more than 20 years in operation and a multi-million-pound turnover. As an owner-managed business, it had determined that digital marketing would be left to those they thought they could trust.


Fast-forward to them asking to change their web hosting and security to our services and the supplier started to show its true colours. We guess there was a reason for the intended change.


So, with the renewal date a few weeks away, we did the usual and contacted the existing supplier. No response at first. Then, a request for a £250 ‘admin fee’. The reason? They ‘had no support contract in place’. To us, allowing a client to leave at the end of their contract without harm being done to their business does not sound like a support ticket. It sounds like the behaviour of any decent business. But, sadly, this cannot always be expected.

 

What can be done to protect your domain?


We suggest the following steps to protect your company’s digital brand identity. It may look complicated at first glance, but for most, it will just be a case of confirming what is in place. For others, it will be something that you only have to do once.

 

  1. Identify who the domain registrar is. Either your company will be paying a bill to them directly or someone else will on your behalf. It could be tied in with a hosting package (discussed later) or an ongoing service package with a designer or developer. 
     
  2. Make sure that it is registered in your business name. If you are the only director or a sole trader, then it’s fine alternatively for the domain to be registered to you personally.  
     
  3. Ideally, have login access to the domain registrar account so that you can see the billing details and renewal date and do things like change the hosting provider. 
     
  4. It's quite normal that your IT provider may register it on their reseller platform. Some platform allow you to have logins to view and manage your domains, others don't. If you trust your IT provider, you can either continue or if you don't have a good relationship with them, it would be best to move your domain, (and change IT provider).
     
  5. If they have actually registered themselves as the owner of the domain then this is either accidental bad practice or an attempt to keep control. For example, they may be trying to make it difficult for you to use another web developer or hosting company, or for other financial gains. Unfortunately, if they actually own the domain, then it is theirs. They may choose to give it to you or sell it to you for a fee, as they see fit. Ownership can be transferred to you, but it’s in their hands to do it. You can’t make them do it unless they are in breach of some agreement e.g. they told you that you would be the owner. But this will have to be proven. If they have legally (but unethically) bought the domain for themselves then you’ll have to negotiate any fee that they request. 
     
  6. Make sure that all directors of the company know where the domain is registered. 
     
  7. Ensure that you have a policy on who has access to the domain account. There are legitimate reasons why internal or external people might need access to it (replacing a website, changing a hosting provider, adding email protection, etc).
     
  8. Check who provides your web hosting. This does not have to be the same as the domain registrar, but it can be. You may want access to the hosting account, but this is less important than the registrar account. Reasons to access the hosting account include installing or changing the SSL certificate (a vital security feature), setting up new email accounts if the web domain also hosts emails and other tasks. 
     
  9. Check where your Domain Name Server (DNS) is held. This may be the same place but could be different. It’s not uncommon to have DNS at Cloudflare. It can be confusing that the domain can be registered at one place, hosted at another, and have DNS controlled at a third. But there can be good reasons to do this.


What to do if your domain is being ‘held to ransom’

 


If there’s a dispute and you’re being held to ransom, there’s sometimes a resolution process, depending on the type of domain. For example, a .uk domain dispute is resolved through Nominet.


Disputes can take time to resolve, and there’s a fee to pay too. This can be as low as £10 for simple cases, or up to £750 or more if an expert has to mediate between the parties.


You’re unlikely to succeed if the domain isn’t registered to your business, or you don’t have evidence that you’ve paid someone to register it, such as an invoice stating that you specifically bought that domain. In this case, negotiating with the supplier really is your only option. 

 

Don’t panic


We must say that it’s important not to panic. Even if you do not have access to your domain, it can’t be bought by anyone else for 90 days following your renewal date. 


So, you have time to resolve it if you give this some attention. 


Of course, if you have any difficulties related to web domains, hosting, and security, we would be happy to give you specific advice based on your circumstances. Feel free to get in touch.

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