At CommLawBlog, we follow domain name issues closely. Unlike lightning, we find two recurring problems striking regularly. These problematic issues are: the failure to renew domain names and a continuing tendency to register valuable domain names in someone else’s name. While both may seem innocuous, they can cause major problems down the line.  Let’s took a look at the reasons why.

1. Failing to Renew Domain Names

Failure to renew a domain name can cause your website to go down. The need to renew your domain names seems obvious and simple enough, but numerous companies and individuals have gotten famous for forgetting and letting domain names lapse, including Microsoft, Jeb Bush, the Dallas Cowboys, and, recently, Sorenson Communications.

Last year, Sorenson Communications let a domain name lapse. It was SORENSON.COM which it used for providing access to its Video Relay Service (which Sorenson operated under the brand name “SVRS”). The domain name expired, the website was inaccessible, and Sorenson’s customers could not receive or place video relay service, 911, and other calls during the outage. Sorenson’s SVRS customers lost their telecommunications relay services, which left individuals with hearing and speech disabilities without the ability to communicate using a phone to call. Although Sorenson notified the FCC the morning the outage began, the domain name was not renewed – nor the website available — for another two days. Although the SVRS services were restored, the FCC was not amused by what it called at “preventable, internal operational failure.”

In the FCC’s September Order, Sorenson agreed to “reimburse the TRS Fund the sum of $2,700,000, and pay a settlement to the United States Treasury in the amount of $252,000.”

But it could have been worse. Sorenson was able to renew its expired domain name and reestablish its SVRS services quickly. Unfortunately for many domain name registrants, expired domain names are picked up by third parties using “domain drop catch” services which are designed to grab newly-expired domain names. It can be expensive and time-consuming to regain your domain name once a third party has pounced on it.

Accordingly, set your domain names to Auto Renewal. Whether you have registered your domain names for one year or ten years, you will probably forget when they expire (and inevitably the email reminder will be sent to your spam file). Auto-renewal service is found under various names for different domain name registrars, but it operates in the same manner and allows you to post a credit card on file and automatically renew your company’s domain name(s) in case someone on staff forgets, avoiding unintended expiration. Even if you don’t actually want to renew the domain name, the cost of renewing the name – even to “park” it for the short term – pales in comparison to the expense of getting it back.

2. Leaving Your Domain Names in Vendors’ Names

A second problem that we are seeing is a tale as old as the commercial Internet: companies still are allowing the actual registration (and ownership) of valuable domain names, including those corresponding to company names, acronyms, and call letters, their web designers and marketing firms. This arrangement works well as long as the business relationships are strong, but the moment there is strife, your company may find its website taken down, or worse, pointing to negative and derogatory material.

With e-commerce online, communication online, and now FCC Broadcast licensee public inspection files online, it is critical to keep continuous control over your domain names and website material.

Accordingly, ensure by contract that all domain names are registered to your company’s name in the first place or transferred to your company’s name immediately after the website goes live. Thank your web designer or marketing firm for a great job, but insist that you have complete control of your domain names. For that ownership to take place, your company should be listed as the “Registrant” of the domain name and an appropriate individual or individuals in your company listed as the “administrative contact” and “technical contact” of the domain name. This information will then be listed in the globally-available WHOIS Database made available by your domain name registrar, and will help ensure that all decisions regarding the domain names, including renewal and transfer, are in your direct control.

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Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth knows domain names. Our attorneys have helped write the rules for the global domain name system as part of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers and have successfully prosecuted and defended cybersquatting actions when there is a dispute over ownership of a particular domain name. We also audit client websites for compliance with online advertising and privacy regulations, including the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. If you have any questions, please contact your attorney here at FHH or Kathy Kleiman, FHH Internet Counsel.