Your website domain name is a valuable asset. It is often how people find you online, and could be your trademark. And like any valuable asset, you must be very clear about who the owner is. If you’re not the domain name owner, someone else might be able to do things with your domain name that you never wanted.
Domain name owner and the registry
Domain names are sold by domain name registrars, who must keep registries of all of the domain names under their care. These registries tell the world who owns the domain name, how to contact the owner, and how the domain name may be transferred. In essence, the information that appears in the registrar’s registry is the best evidence of who actually owns the domain name.
Unfortunately, this often doesn’t work the way it should. Many people think that they own their domain name – and in way, technically they do – but their information doesn’t appear in the registry, giving them very little practical power.
Registrant vs owner
When dealing with domain names, we must understand that there is often confusion between the terms “registrant” and “owner”.
Generally, the registrant is defined as the “registered domain name owner” – so the registrant and owner should be the same person. However, some registrars understand that sometimes people get domain names registered on their behalf (e.g. where you don’t know how to register a domain name, and get a friend to do it for you). In this case, registrars can view the registrant as the domain name owner’s agent. But what if the relationship between the owner and agent breaks down?
Think about your domain name as a piece of land. When you buy physical property, the deeds office gives you a title deed. If your name appears on the title deed, you can sell the property, rent it, build on it, or do anything else that the law allows. The title deed is proof (or at least very good evidence) that you are the owner. If someone else’s name appears on the title deed by mistake, you will have to go to great lengths to prove that you are the real owner, because the initial evidence is skewed against you. And in the meantime, it is very easy for the other person to convince others that he has the power to do things to your property.
In the same way, the registrar’s registry is like the title deed for your domain name. If you are the domain name owner, but someone else’s name appears as the registrant, you will find it very difficult to stop them from transferring your domain name, or shutting it down, or doing something else with it. This could lead to your website shutting down entirely, and customers being unable to find your business anymore.
Some registrars view the “registrant” position as merely a representative of the owner. Some others will only regard you as the owner if you are listed as the registrant. You can check who is listed as the registrant on your domain by typing your domain name into a WHOis search.
What happens in practice?
It is unfortunately quite common for registrars to have the incorrect name listed as the registrant. Often people will get their website developer or hosting provider to register their domain name on their behalf. Sometimes when this happens, the website developer or hosting provider will put their own names down as the registrant, rather than the person who asked them to register it. We have seen some people hold websites “hostage” in this way. More often than not, this is unlawful.
This is also something that the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) has spoken about. ISPA is the industry body for all internet service providers in South Africa, and includes many website developers and hosting providers. Their code of conduct insists that all members, if asked to register a domain name on a customer’s behalf, must put the customer’s name down as registrant. This code of conduct isn’t binding on non-members, but if your service provider isn’t a member of ISPA, you have to wonder why not?
If your company owns the domain name, the company should be listed as the registrant. Because a company is a juristic person, the registrar will also need to know who (or what email address) to contact at the company regarding the domain name. This is a very important and very powerful position, and you must be very careful about who you choose to act in this role (or have access to this email address), and how you manage it. If the person you appoint leaves or gets upset with the company, they will still have power over the domain name until they are removed as the registrant.
How can we help you?
If you are a domain name owner, you must always check – and insist – that your name appears as the registrant. We can help you to:
- Find out who is listed as registrant on your domain name
- Get back a domain name that was stolen from you
- Advise you how to manage your company’s domain name
- Advise you on your domain name issues