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Domains Are Not Forever

Domains Are Not Forever

I recently heard a story about a young woman (we'll call her Sheila) who, on visiting the Web site she had set up for her deceased boyfriend - a victim of the 9-11 attacks - discovered that the domain had been taken over by a porn site. Anguished and appalled, she set out to recover the domain and return the site to its original, inoffensive, and informational state.

The person who did this awful thing is a jerk (we'll refer to him as Jerko). But he's also well within his legal rights. Sheila made a fundamental and, unfortunately, quite common mistake with her domain: She let the registration lapse.

There are, by some estimates, around 60 million registered domains, with millions more being held - often by commercial parties - until the owners actually launch Web sites to support them. Anyone can register a domain: Start by visiting InterNIC's Web site and looking up the desired domain through the organization's Whois service; if no one owns the domain, you can buy it through dozens of ISPs, site-hosting services, and even companies that simply "park" the domain for you until you're ready to launch a site.

But whether you pay a one-year registration fee of roughly $18 or buy three years at a time, you never truly own the domain. What purchasing a domain really means is you own the right to use that top-level domain (TLD) as a resolve for your IP address. The maximum amount of time anyone can own a domain is a decade; then you have to renew. Typically, people buy two-year agreements.

When the agreement ends, the domain reverts to the master list and becomes available for anyone to buy. This does not happen without warning, though: Most hosting services will begin sending you e-mail alerts up to three months before the registration expires.

Some years ago, I owned a commercial domain, but the planned business never took flight. Even though I wanted to maintain ownership, I made the same mistake that virtually everyone who ever inadvertently loses a domain makes: I stopped checking my e-mail.

I don't mean all my e-mail; I had set up a special account to receive administrative information on my domain. When you register a domain, you have to provide detailed contact information to the registrar (InterNIC or, more likely, your hosting service). The host will then send all domain-related info to that address.

So one day I went to check my domain and found it had disappeared. In this case, it hadn't expired. Instead, one of my partners had neglected to pay the domain registration bill.

Sheila's situation was slightly different. She did check her e-mail account, but it had become a huge spam repository since she launched the domain, and she was deleting countless messages without even reading them. Among the unread emails was, of course, the notification that the domain was up for renewal.

Our friend Jerko is one of the many cyber lurkers who pay a service as much a $65 per domain to be notified the moment the domain becomes available. Typically, you have to supply such a service with a list of most-wanted domains (a watchlist, of sorts), so it's unclear how Jerko targeted Sheila's. My guess, though, is that he took a look at the list of 9-11 victims and figured that there was enough name recognition there on a per-name basis to drive some decent traffic and visibility for his porn site business.

The very thought of what he did makes me sick. Unfortunately, even the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers' (ICANN) Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy appears to back Jerko's rights, not Sheila's.

Three ICANN criteria must be met in order to win back a domain:

1) The domain name is identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or service mark in which the complainant has rights.

2) [The new domain owner has] no rights to or legitimate interests in the domain name.

3) Your domain name has been registered and is being used in bad faith.

Sheila can legitimately argue the second and third points, but the first puts her on shaky ground. Sheila's boyfriend was neither a celebrity nor a brand name. There are names, like McDonalds, Madonna, Eminem, and Brittney Spears, that are both, but it's unlikely ordinary people could ever start trademarking common names—imagine how quickly we'd run out of good ones.

I checked Sheila's domain a few days ago, and it was no longer pointing to a porn site. When I checked Whois, I saw that her domain is actually in a "redemption period." It seems as if Jerko had a change of heart. Will you be as lucky if you lose your personal or commercial domain? Why chance it? Here are some tips for maintaining control.

Start with a domain name that's clearly your own. Any time companies come up with a product name, they do a trademark search to make sure someone else isn't already using it. Go online, search the name or combination of names you plan on using. You don't want to get caught in a dispute later on—if it's brand name, you'll likely lose the battle.

Choose your ISP wisely. You can get a Web site and domain for as little as $20, but unless the provider spells out how they'll help you support and protect your domain, you could lose it without even knowing it. The best hosts, like ValueWeb, will offer to notify you of domain registration dues three months in advance and then follow up with monthly e-mails.

Pay ahead. Find an ISP that'll let you buy the domain for at least three years. Numerous excellent deals are available.

Keep track. Have more than one domain? Put notifications in your personal information manager that will alert you when each domain renewal is coming due. It also helps to make a spreadsheet that lists the domain, the actual IP address, and the main administrative contact's e-mail and phone number.

Don't miss the mail. ISPs and Web Hosting Services host too many Web sites to be able to call anyone when it's time to renew. They invariably use e-mail, which means you need to check the administrative account daily. If spam is swamping your mailbox, apply filters and antispam client software. Also, try to avoid using a free mail service as your administrative account, since such services are often spam magnets, have limited storage space, and can lapse or become locked if you haven't visited them in a while.

Keep records. Save all e-mails relating to administration of the domain(s). Store them in an off-line folder or print them out.

Pay up. If someone already owns the domain name you desire (which is not unusual with surnames) and appears to be squatting on it, try sending an e-mail to the administrator to see how much the owner wants for it. Ordinary names can go for $1,500 or less.

By: Lance Ulanoff  | Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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