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Your Guide to Domain Ownership Protection

Your Guide to Domain Ownership Protection

Having a domain name is a key way of establishing your online presence, whether through a website or specific email-addresses. Read this guide to find out how to protect domain names.

19th March 2021
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Introduction

Having domain ownership protection is very important to growing your online presence, particularly for businesses. However, with all the technical terms and registers floating around, it can be really difficult to figure out where you register a domain name and how you continue to protect it. This guide will explain how domain ownership protection works. We’ll first cover what a domain name is, then three key ways of protecting it: domain name registration, other name registrations, and domain name complaint mechanisms.

What is a domain?

Put simply, a domain name is an internet address used to identify websites and emails. There is always a top-level domain (‘TLD’) at the far end of these addresses. Generic top-level domains (‘gTLD’) can take the form of ‘.com’, ‘.net’ or ‘.org’. There are also country specific ones called country-code top-level domains (‘ccTLD’). The Australian one is ‘.au’. Additions can be made to the left of these domains (sometimes referred to as the ‘namespace’). Such additions sit in a ‘hierarchy’ below TLDs, decreasing in level as you move to the left. Therefore, a domain name is an internet address built out of these TLDs and additions.

The Australian ccTLD is managed by the .au Domain Administration (‘auDA’). They are responsible for setting rules on using the namespace of the ‘.au’ domains. For example, they have specific rules on using ‘.com.au’ and ‘.org.au’. Additionally, they are responsible for accrediting domain registrars. These are entities who are allowed to register domains. As only certain entities can register domains, this makes managing and protecting domain names easier. You can see a list of accredited registrars on their website.

In this guide, we’ll focus on domain names using Australian ccTLDs (i.e. domain names ending in ‘.au’). However, if you plan to use gTLDs in your domain name instead, check out the ICANN policies and their list of accredited registrars.

Domain name registration

Firstly, registering a domain name is necessary to use it. However, it is also an automatic way of protecting the domain name. This is because registration stops people from using that same domain name. Our legal plans include partner offers who can register domain names for you. However, there are two key things to note before registration: eligibility and duration of “ownership”.

Eligibility

According to auDA’s rules, you can only use domain names ending in ‘.au’ if you have an Australian link. The link requirement is more specific for particular endings like ‘.com.au’, ‘.net.au’, and ‘.org.au’ . For example, in order to use ‘.com.au’, you can establish the Australian connection by having a registered Australian business name or trademark. New rules coming into effect from the 12th April, 2021 may vary some of the rules for particular endings.

Duration

Additionally, you can only licence domain names for periods of 1-5 years; ownership of a domain name forever isn’t possible. Therefore, it’s important to renew a domain registration when it expires to protect your domain name and prevent others from using it. Conveniently, renewal is done through the same registrar that you registered the domain name with.

Other name registrations

Most domain names used by businesses reflect their business name or brand. Therefore, an indirect way of protecting your domain name is by registering it as a business name or trademark. This is because such registrations may protect you from others using the same business name or brand. Additionally, as we mentioned earlier, you can use registered business names and trademarks to prove the Australian link in order to use particular domain name endings like ‘.com.au’. Therefore, you can also indirectly protect your domain name by preventing others from using these forms of proving an Australian link. For example, under the new rules coming into effect from the 12th April, 2021, if a trademark is used to prove the Australian link, the domain name must be identical to the trademarked name.

Registering business names

Firstly, note that if you are ‘carrying on a business’ in Australia under a particular name, you have to register it as a business name (subject to a few exceptions). Before registration however, you need to have an Australian Business Number (ABN) or be in the process of getting one. Once registered, others are prevented from registering identical or near-identical business names. However, the registration of a business name does not give you a general exclusive right to that name. It also does not prevent registrations under similar names. This is where trademarks come in.

Registering trademarks

Trademarks are legal rights to use, licence and sell a particular ‘mark’. This mark can take the form of words and phrases, including business names. As such, they can act as an extra layer of protection to registration of business names. For example, while the registered business name can protect against identical registrations, a registered trademark can protect against selling t-shirts with your business name. However, trademarks do not necessarily reserve the use of domain names. Therefore, while trademark registration coupled with business name registration provide additional ways to protect a domain name, they are not substitutes for domain name registration.

Domain name complaint mechanisms

Domain name complaint mechanisms are a useful form of domain ownership protection when someone is using your business name or trademark as a domain name. As such, they are technically an indirect way of protecting your domain name. This situation is more common than you think. This is because domain names are allocated on a ‘first come, first served’ basis. Therefore, simply holding a registered business name or trademark does not give you priority in registering it as a domain name. 

However, auDA provides complaint mechanisms where you can argue that a domain name ‘owner’ is not eligible to hold their domain name. As we mentioned above, one of the key eligibility requirements for registering a domain name ending in ‘.au’ is having an Australian link. Therefore, if you can show that a domain name owner doesn’t have that link, you could make a complaint. This is especially relevant for particular endings like ‘.com.au’ which have quite specific rules on showing the Australian link.

The new rules coming into effect from the 12th April, 2021 will vary the complaint process a bit. The key change here is that you have to make a complaint to the registrar of the relevant domain name first. Only after exhausting all your options with the registrar can you elevate your complaint to auDA.

Conclusion

In summary, domain names are the key means of identifying websites and emails. Therefore, businesses need to register and engage in domain ownership protection to grow their online presence. In Australia, domain names are handled by auDA. Other than registration of a domain name, other protections including registering an underlying business name or trademark. Additionally, complaint mechanisms exist if you think the ‘owner’ of your preferred domain name isn’t eligible to hold it.

Author
Beulah Pene

Beulah is a Legal Tech Intern at Lawpath. He is in his final year at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). He is interested in disruptive technologies in the legal industry and intellectual property law.