Is an IT person listed as the “owner” of your domain name? Your “web guy”? An employee of your business? If so, you may have a ticking time bomb on your hands and you need to address the issue NOW!
Registrant is an odd term but an important one to know if you own domain names personally or your company does. The registrant is the “owner” of a domain name. Now I’m not a lawyer, but just to be sure we are clear and correct, let’s have an actual lawyer who knows this answer very well, Karen Bernstein from BernsteinIP.com and make it official:
Karen, is the registrant listed in whois records the legal owner of a domain name?
It depends on where you live. If you live in California, for example, a domain name is considered property so perhaps the registrant is the “owner” of the domain name, but if you live in Washington, D.C., domain names are not considered property so you’d be considered more like a licensee by contract with the Registrar and not the owner of the domain name.
How is the registrant determined? The registrant of a domain name is determined based on the registrar account holder by default, but in many cases, the registrant can be set to a specific entity from within the one registrar account for specific domain names in the registrar account. Basically, the “name” used when creating a registrar account is the registrant of the domain names within the account.
What is a registrar? A registrar is a service provider that provides you a way to register domain names. Some popular domain name registrars for an example are Network Solutions, GoDaddy, eNom and Tucows to mention a few.
Domain names were free at one time. Back in the 80’s nobody was even aware of the internet and systems did not work the way they do today. Nobody really had email and in general only a few knew what they were doing to even register a domain name. As time passed, many of these people became “The Web Guy” or “The IT Guy” and so on.
Since domain names were not really considered valuable at that time or an asset or property… as long as the domain name was registered and resolved a company’s website was really all that mattered to most.
Fast forward several years and domain names start selling for some $$$. They are hot property and many are sought after by large and small companies as they are the face of their online properties. Companies are becoming highly dependent that there websites are live 99.9% of the time, email is working and the website is accepting worldwide visitors 24/7!
Many businesses are solely dependent on their domain name, yet not even aware they are!
Until one day the website doesn’t work anymore? Must be a hosting problem? My email doesn’t appear to be working either? This is odd says John Doe, CEO of BLU.com. Call the IT guy and see what’s going on with our website and email and get it fixed ASAP, we are losing big time money and this is embarrassing for the company. COO Joe Doe informs John Doe that they fired the IT Guy yesterday and the new guy starts tomorrow and the website, email etc. will be fixed then.
When IT guy was fired, he “took” the domain name with him, because he felt he owned the domain name as he was the registrant of it back in 1995! His name was the registrant of it at the registrar!
Back to reality and the fact of the matter is that many IT people that work for companies “manage” the domain name assets of companies they work for and do not own. This ranges from large companies to small companies. It’s not just IT guys, it’s web design firms, PR firms, advertising agencies and the list goes on, but it’s often simply somebody that knows enough but not really enough. This is still happening today, so even if your domains were registered only recently or acquired it is relevant to know who the registrant of your domain names is.
It is vital, I mean really vital that YOU know who the registrant is for all “your” domain names. If you own a company and that company owns the domain names, the businesses management team needs to know who is listed as the registrant of the domain names and who controls them.
The registrant should NOT be listed as the IT guy, that is the reason for the Admin and Technical contacts within a registrar account. It shouldn’t be listed as the web designer guy, the registrant should be listed as the real owners of the domain name! The companies name for an example! The registrant email address is also vitally important, because that is where domain name renewal notifications go. That is where domain name transfer notification and or approvals take place. That is where a password reset will likely go if somebody attempts a password reset on the account etc.
I cannot express enough how important it is for you to know who is listed as the registrant of “your” domain names is. If they are listed as the IT guy or the web guy, fix it NOW!
What happens if the IT guy was listed as the registrant of the domain name and he is claiming ownership of the domain name and preventing “the company” who was using it? Each case like this will very likely be different and specific, but legal counsel is likely the best advice at this point if you didn’t prevent it from happening in the first place. Let’s ask Karen Bernstein again for some legal advice if there is a ownership dispute and or how to prevent them in the future.
Karen, what are some steps an entity should put in place and your advice to prevent an employee from hi-jacking a domain name or claiming ownership of it from a legal standpoint?
For starters, your company should have the IT person — whether they are an employee or outside contractor — to sign an agreement that acknowledges that your company owns the domain name(s). Otherwise, you could wind up spending money on a lawyer to bring a domain dispute against them. You should also set up a special e-mail address for the Administrative Contact that is not the IT guy/gal or “Web” guy/gal’s e-mail address. The Administrative Contact is where all correspondence is sent from the Registrar. You should have a dedicated e-mail address as the Administrative Contact in the event that the IT administrator leaves the company, has an accident, or dies. It’s also a good idea to keep the user name/password for your domain names secure and not to let the IT person have it. If the IT person needs access to the domain name control panel, then you can provide him or her with a user name/password but then change the password after the IT person leaves the account.
It is vital to know who is listed as the registrant of domain names you or your company own and who has access to them. The registrant is the “owner” of the domain name. The registrant is established via the registrar account the domain name is registered at. If you are unsure who is listed as the registrant of any domain name, you can do a free Whois search using a service like whois.domaintools.com and look at the name listed as Registrant. Sometimes a whois search will not work if a domain name is using a privacy service and in a situation like that, one would need to gain access to the registrar account to verify registrant details. Keep in mind that the email address is also vitally important as to who has access to it.
In general, there are services who provide domain name management services, so if you own a lot of them or own a bunch of valuable domains or are having issues managing the ones you do own scattered about different registrars… it may be something to consider.
If you run into problems and the likely fix is legal, Karen is a great person to speak with because it’s vital to have a lawyer that under stands domain names! Not just your average “lawyer” will always be the best route. Losing a valuable asset can crush a business, so this isn’t a game and should be taken extremely seriously.