Citizens in every corner of the globe access the internet daily for school, work, research, socializing, and everything in between. Sadly, however, this internet usage has also given rise to many other issues — most notably, those looking to exploit the internet for personal gain.
Among the many exploitative practices used is the concept of domain squatting, commonly referred to as “cybersquatting.” According to the U.S. federal government, domain squatting is the bad faith practice of purchasing, registering, and trafficking internet domain names with “the intent to profit from the goodwill of a trademark belonging to someone else.”
- How domain squatting works
- Some examples of famous people and businesses that experienced cybersquatting
- Legal actions you can take to resolve this situation
How long has domain squatting existed?
Domain squatting has existed since the beginning of the internet. Typically, domain squatters make an exorbitant offer to sell the domain to the individual or company that owns the trademark. But just because a domain name is already registered does not mean a squatter is using it. The number of people registering domain names has surged due to the importance of having one associated with a company trademark.
Learn how to obtain domain names already owned and registered while exploring valuable information about these so-called domain squatters.
How Can I Get Domain Names That Are Already Registered?
When a particular domain name is registered, it is owned by the registering party. If you intend on buying this particular domain name, you need to figure out whether the domain is registered for legitimate purposes or is being held in a limbo state due to potential squatting.
After determining the nature of the domain’s use, you can strategize your position by choosing one of the methods below.
Option #1 — Negotiate
Money talks and is the primary interest for most domain-owning individuals. After surmising whether a domain is being legitimately used or held for squatting purposes, determine the price you are willing to offer the domain owner. Lawfully-used domain names can often be negotiated for a modest sum, enough to incentivize domain owners to transfer their rights.
However, if the domain name has been registered with the intent of squatting, negotiating may prove fruitless as the asking price can be massively inflated. Worse still — if the negotiating party is a nationally-recognized company, celebrity, or public figure, the squatter will probably believe they can easily pony up the asking price.
Option #2 — Play the waiting game
Because many domain owners charge extortionate prices and remain stubborn throughout the negotiation, the options for obtaining a domain name become reduced. This leaves many interested parties with only the option to snap up a domain name when it expires.
That said, waiting for expiration is risky because multiple parties may be interested in buying the domain name and may obtain it before you. Additionally, domain name owners might be subscribing to automatic renewal services to prevent any lapse in ownership. If neither of the above options work, most people turn to legal action.
Option #3 — Take legal action
Court battles are notoriously costly for all parties involved. Due to the lengthy processes involved and the cost of retaining counsel, many individuals will return to their negotiation attempts or wait for the domain name to expire.
Those who move forward in court cases typically have a solid case that indicates domain squatting and have access to the funding needed for representation during a potentially lengthy court case. Assuming the suing party is taking the stance that domain squatting is involved, two options are available to gain ownership.
What legal action can I take against domain squatting?
Domain attorneys can typically help business or trademark owners file a lawsuit under the federal Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA). Re-registrations of domain names are also subject to the ACPA.
You may also be able to file a complaint under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP). Each of these laws has advantages and disadvantages. It’s critically important to thoroughly understand the magnitude of entering such a court case, as they are often lengthy, expensive, and emotionally draining.
Here are six valuable tips:
- Practice prevention early on and avoid becoming a domain squatter victim
- Register your domain name as quickly as possible, even if you don’t plan on using it yet. Many squatters will view recently searched domain names wanting to sell them back to the original party, so an early purchase helps prevent this
- Although it may seem cumbersome and costly, register similar names to ensure a comprehensive level of protection. If you buy domainsquatter.com, it is advised to also buy domainsquatter.co, .biz, .org, and .net (and possibly even others)
- Consider purchasing commonly misspelled names of your .com entity to further ensure protection
- Invest in domain ownership protection. Sites like GoDaddy.com offer comprehensive protection packages to help clients retain ultimate ownership of their domain entities, regardless of impending expiration dates or attempts by other individuals to transfer the domain name
- Consider registering a trademark. If you are establishing a business, registering a trademark is an important step that will provide protections for your domain name as well as all the protections afforded by the United States Patent and Trademark Office
What Are Some Known Domain Name Court Cases?
Court cases are often fascinating because they show how complex the issues can be. Read on about some cases big-name companies and celebrities experienced.
The example of U.S. teenager Mike Rowe involving global company Microsoft and its efforts against evicting the teen from his website. Microsoft claimed the domain name infringed upon its trademark rights. MikeRoweSoft.com had no affiliation with Microsoft, did not try to profit off its name, and was full of personal pictures and blog posts detailing his everyday life.
Still, Microsoft took Rowe to court and later came to an agreement outside of court, helping him set up a new domain name, website, and other perks. International companies learned that the public would often see this type of action as big companies ‘bullying’ individuals, which can cause serious public relations problems.
Pop star Madonna’s court battle with someone using madonna.com is a fairly clear example of how this process works and how an individual can reclaim their name or trademark.
A New York businessman had registered madonna.com. He also had a history of having previously registered domain names such as wallstreetjournal.com — again, seemingly having no legitimate interest in procuring and registering that specific name. Madonna fought her court case through the World Intellectual Property Organization and eventually won, gaining control of the madonna.com site.
Notable examples of other celebrities who have won against cybersquatters in court include actress Julia Roberts and rock band Jethro Tull, both of whom fought long legal battles to reclaim their names. Their mutual victories have inspired thousands of individuals, businesses, and organizations to fight back and recover their names.
Major corporations such as Panasonic, Avon, and Hertz have also been in court in a bid to reclaim their trademark names. Inspiringly, victory often favors the claimants, with courts siding with the parties with a well-documented history of association with the name in question.
When Do Lawsuits Against Domain Owners or Squatters Win?
Ultimately, winning against domain squatters comes down to whether or not the individual has a legitimate interest in the domain name. In the case of Madonna.com, the court found the defendant had no legitimate interest in registering the domain name other than to profit from Madonna’s trademark and fame. But plenty of individuals on the internet have vested and completely legitimate interests in their site and are not intending to profit from another individual or business.
When do domain court cases lose?
While many businesses and individuals have gone on to successfully reclaim their domain names, it is important to note just as many people lose their cases.
Our final example of musician Bruce Springsteen proves fascinating. Springsteen brought a case against the owner of BruceSpringsteen.com, claiming the website was used only to redirect traffic to his own personal “Celebrity 1000” website.
The defendant indicated that his Springsteen site was a fan club, and it did not harm the musician’s image or reputation. Also, he made no profit from owning the domain. The defendant won the case; it was ruled he had legitimate interests in the domain name and could retain ownership as he saw fit.
Perhaps one of the most widely discussed domain squatting cases ever, people wondered how a famous singer couldn’t procure the rights to his name. But domain names are a complicated business. And just being famous or powerful does not mean you will always win a case of alleged domain squatting.
The uncertainty of domain name court cases
Taking domain squatting cases to court is never a sure thing. While many cases win, many also continue to lose. Domain squatters craft airtight defenses and cultivate a kind of faux legitimacy to succeed in their money-making endeavors.
Yet despite the uncertainty, it is always a worthy endeavor for those who wish to reclaim their names, especially in an online world where domain authority and ownership reign supreme for branding, growth, and continued financial prowess.
In what ways is domain ownership complex?
Whether it involves Microsoft, Madonna, or Bruce Springsteen, it is of great value to understand that domain squatting lawsuits can often go in unexpected directions.
Consequently, people must ensure they have rock-solid cases illustrating their domain name rights when taking on domain squatters. They also need to demonstrate the illegitimate interest of the domain squatter currently operating the domain.
Takeaway point: not every case is domain squatting, and there are plenty of gray areas that can be confusing and arduous for many. Many thinking about starting a domain squatting case might change their mind due to fear, uncertainty about the outcome, and concerns over the hefty costs involved. It’s extremely helpful to focus on the domain squatter in question instead.
An individual can easily conclude that a case is worthwhile by simply looking at the domain squatter’s activity on the site. If the domain squatter is redirecting people to their own sites and ads, or if there is an obvious intent to profit from famed individuals or a company’s namesake, then legal proceedings are definitely in order.
Further, those considering lawsuits against domain squatters can be increasingly confident of a victory in court if they have obtained a trademark before the domain squatter registered the site name. If this proves to be the case, trademark owners can easily prove trademark infringement in court or via the UDRP resolution policies. Remember: this is not legal advice. Before taking any action, consult with an attorney.
Frequently Asked Questions About Domain Squatting
How do I find out who owns a domain?
To easily discern who owns a particular domain, visit the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN’s) site to perform a WHOIS search. Often a domain owner’s contact information will be available from the search results page. While many domain owners utilize services to protect their privacy, there should be a contact email you can access at the very least.
More often than not, domain owners squatting or using many sites to make money will make it fairly easy for you to contact them.
How much is a domain worth?
A domain’s worth can be highly subjective. Domain squatters may insist their domain name is worth hundreds of millions, while others might perceive the same domain to be worth a few hundred dollars.
Aside from subjective estimations, a domain’s value can be assessed in various ways, such as through its affiliation with a recognizable public figure, company, or product, or through its association with a popular domain already widely used.
When evaluating a domain name, consider the following:
- Legal status — Is it a registered trademark? Has it expired?
- Desirability — How much do you want to own the site? At what cost?
- Domain owner’s situation – Do they have a vested interest in owning the site? Do they need the money from a domain sale? Are they emotionally attached to the site?
- The economy — Is the economy currently a bull or bear market? Depending on the market, domain names can be worth far more or less.
How do I find out if the domain I want becomes available?
For many people, obtaining their domain of choice can become a waiting game that lasts for years. While interested parties can directly contact domain owners, many prefer to simply wait it out and procure the domain name upon expiration. Contacting domain owners is far more effective.
Many assume the domain owner will be angry or possessive over their domain names. But politely approaching them can often be a winning strategy. By stating your interest in the site, the reasons behind your interest, and making a reasonable offer, interested parties can often get a desirable response — or at least start a conversation that enables the negotiation process.
Not contacting domain owners can be immensely frustrating and is not foolproof. Other people may try negotiations before the domain expires. Also, many domains take advantage of automatic renewals. When you wait thinking a domain might expire, you may be sorely surprised when it operates well past the expiration date.
Even without automatic renewals, nearly all domain registry companies provide their customers with convenient grace periods and email notifications when renewing.
Is domain squatting still happening?
The enormous global population using the internet has resulted in a lack of sought-after .com domain names. With the reduction in .com names available, the domain squatting business became far less prevalent than in the early days. While this has greatly relieved major corporations, celebrities, and many others, there has also been growing concern about the introduction of generic top-level domain names (gTLDs.)
ICANN introduced the concept of gTLDs to ease the difficulty experienced by people looking to procure relevant domain names. This massively increased the availability of domain names by rolling out hundreds of domain “extension names” creating domains that define and represent brands and interests. Countless gTLDs are available, from .news to .clothing and more.
While this makes finding relevant domain names much easier, it has consequently unleashed a tidal wave of concern for major businesses and public figures. ICANN’s introduction of gTLD extension names means domain squatters can now purchase websites such as tommyhilfiger.clothing or cnn.news to take advantage of the trademarks’ profitability and branding.
As a result, lawsuits against domain squatters continue when many previously believed that the concept of squatting would inevitably die down. While it has evolved in myriad ways, domain squatting will surely exist for as long as the internet exists, with individuals worldwide attempting to cash in on the viability of namesakes.
How can we overcome domain squatters?
Fortunately, domain squatting can be successfully contended with. Carefully crafted lawsuits full of research, supportive facts, and a demonstrated right to a particular domain name can and will ensure that complainants can march successfully through a litany of legal gray areas into a cut-and-dry case that’s ultimately ruled in their favor.