Domain names are the addresses of websites that are intended to be easy to remember… think “google”. But google is more than just a website search engine, indeed it has taken on its own persona for people to be saying “just google it” when they don’t know something. Domain names are becoming more and more important, and a good analogy is to real estate, in that domain names are the foundations on which a website (house) can be built. And, the highest “quality” domain names are like the most desirable real estate, with significant value, usually due to their online brand-building potential, use in advertising and search engine optimization, and worldwide exposure for products and services. It is becoming vital for all businesses, large and small, to have a presence in the cyber world.

The development and architecture of domain names is managed by The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN authorizes domain name registrars, through which domain names may be registered. Domain names are usually registered for a period of around 2 years. There are different licence fees that apply, depending on whether you are registering .com.au or .org.au or .net.au and so on. Businesses primarily doing business in Australia should always at the least register .com.au, net.au and .com version of their names and should also consider registering domain names associated with their products.

Disputes regarding domain names arise particularly from “cybersquatting”. Cybersquatting is where someone uses the name of a famous business, or celebrity; for example… “Hugh Grant” and registers it as a domain name even though they have no connection to him (but might like to). Because it is relatively cheap to register, cyber-squatters can register hundreds of names, then put them up for auction to the celebrities or businesses, or alternatively use the good name of the person to attract their own business. To give you some idea of this underhand market, many deals are done privately and go unreported, and in 2009 it was rumoured that “insure.com” was sold for $16 million!

Around 12 years ago, the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP) was established to resolve disputes that arise in relation to domain names. The way decisions are made depends on the panel considering things such as: whether the domain name is identical or confusingly similar to a trademark or other mark in which the complainant has rights; whether the respondent has any legitimate rights or interests in the domain name; and whether the domain name was registered in bad faith. Organisations such as WIPO provide a dispute resolution service in this regard.

However, decisions in domain name disputes haven’t always been consistent, with mixed views on how and whether it is right to curtail the internet. At first decisions such as those in “juliaroberts.com” ensured that the rights to the domain name reverted back to the celebrity herself. But later decisions, such as “brucespringsteen.com” showed that the panels do not wish to stifle the freedom of information that the internet is instrumental in giving; and part of that freedom arises from the registration of domain names. In that decision, the panel thought the Julia Roberts case too hastily concluded that registration of a domain name was evidence of an attempt to prevent a legitimate owner from obtaining a corresponding domain name.

This is an ever changing and growing area of law, and if you have any queries or questions, please feel free to contact us.

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