An Internet domain name can be vital to branding and marketing, so it’s important for business owners to be familiar with some of the legal rules related to domain names, including the intersection of domain name rights with trademark rights. This post also reviews actions you can take to dispute domain names that may infringe upon your trademark rights.
A domain name is the primary “address” of a web site, and nearly all website owners want to have a domain name that is identifiable and easy to remember.
If my company is called “Betty’s Plumbing, Inc.” and I have a trademark for “Betty’s Plumbing”, it would be most logical for my website to also be “www.bettysplumbing.com”. This would be the best way for current and potential customers to find me online.
Domain Names vs. Trademarks
A trademark is a word, name or symbol used in commerce to indicate the source of the goods or services and to distinguish them from the goods or services of others.
Trademarks and domain names are not synonymous, but the two concepts often meet when there is an issue of whether use of the domain name is a trademark violation.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has made clear: “Registration of a domain name with a domain name registrar does not give you any trademark rights.” The USPTO also states that simply using a trademark as part of a domain name does not necessary serve the function of “indicating the source” of goods or services. In other words, using someone else trademark in your domain name is not automatically infringement. However, additional uses of the trademark by your business beyond your domain name could lead to trouble!
The biggest takeaway is that the issue is not black and white. Generally, we recommend that before you spend money on acquiring a certain domain name, you do some research to make sure your desired domain name does not contain a trademark belonging to someone else who has not given you permission to use it. Trademark violations occur when there is “confusion in the marketplace” – when a consumer could confuse the business represented by the domain name with another business represented by a trademark contained in the domain name.
Further domain name registrars such as GoDaddy and Google Domains do not perform any trademark ownership verification before registering a new domain name for you so it is your responsibility to consider intellectual property matters! If you need any assistance with this, please contact our Intellectual Property team.
Domain Name Disputes
Domain name disputes often involve companies battling over the ownership of domain names from “cybersquatters.” Some cybersquatters register domain names with the intention of selling them at high prices to the companies who own the trademarks. Others exploit domain names by taking advantage of the online traffic that popular brands attract and misdirecting consumers to the cybersquatters’ own websites for such business as selling counterfeit goods, or at worst, websites loaded with viruses, malware, and other malicious content.
The Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA)
You can file a federal lawsuit to challenge a domain name under the ACPA, a law enacted in 1999. ACPA allows you to challenge domain names that are similar to your business name and other trademarks. ACPA makes it “illegal to register, “traffic in” or use a domain name that is identical or confusingly similar to a distinctive or famous. If a trademark owner successfully wins a claim under the ACPA, the Court will grant an order that requires the domain be transferred back to the trademark owner. In certain cases, the Court can also award monetary damages.
Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP)
Another (and likely cheaper) way to challenge a domain name is through the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute-Resolution Policy (UDRP), a process created by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the non-profit corporation that manages and controls domain name registrations. UDRP provides a relatively quick legal mechanism to resolve a domain name dispute by providing a streamlined procedure to transfer or cancel ownership of domain names.
Beyond offering a quicker dispute resolution process beyond federal court litigation, UDRP proceeds are also nice because it does not matter whether the trademark owner and domain name holder live in different countries. Filing a lawsuit in U.S. federal court generally comes with jurisdictional issues that are tricky if the domain name holder lives in another country.
If your business needs help with a trademark or domain name issue, please contact us today!