Your domain name is one of your company’s most important assets – or at least it should be. So when your (now former) employee, your web designer or another third party secured widgets.com on your widget-making company’s behalf, did they register it in your name or in their own?
If it wasn’t registered in your company’s name (and it’s not a trademark) then, strictly speaking, you have no legal rights to it. You might be using it for your website, you might be using it for your email addresses but that doesn’t mean that you actually own it.
Why third party ownership could become a problem
The domain name could be sold without your consent
If your domain was registered in the name of someone other than your current website designer or hosting provider, and no formal agreement exists between you, then they could choose to sell, what is essentially their property, to someone else (most likely a competitor of yours) at some point in the future – especially if it’s a sought after, keyword-rich name.
The domain registration could be allowed to lapse
Domain name registrations require regular renewal. If you no longer have a relationship with the registrant and, as such, are not paying (directly or indirectly) any renewal fees yourself, how can you be sure that the registration will continue? If it’s allowed to lapse then any services attached to it (such as email and web) will cease to operate.
The registered owner’s company could cease to exist
If your domain was registered in the name of your web designer, hosting provider or similar supplier and the business fails, you could find that extracting a registered asset of a disolved company from its receivers quite a difficult task – especially if the name is a very good one and therefore worth money to creditors.
You might want to sell your business in the future
If you wanted to sell your business in the future and include your company website as part of the package you wouldn’t be able to transfer the associated domain name to the new owners – only the registrant could do that.
How to check domain registration details
Whilst some domain name owners might use a third party service to hide their registration details from the public, most records can be easily checked by anyone via one of the many free online “WHOIS” services available.
We generally use Domain Tools here, but there are lots of other services around – try typing “whois lookup” into Google.
To check with Domain Tools, simply append your domain name to their whois web address – for example: http://whois.domaintools.com/amazon.co.uk.
The layout of the information will vary according to the domain name registry responsible but you should be able to see the registrant details (name and address) – are they yours?
What you can do if you’re not the registered owner
If you’re still friends
If you’re still on good terms with the registrant than then getting a change of ownership shouldn’t be too much of a problem. They might want to charge an administration fee and the registry responsible might also charge a little something for transfer, but otherwise it should all be relatively painless.
If you’re not
If your relationship with the registrant has broken down, transferring ownership might be quite a difficult process – especially if the name in question is not a trademark (even worse if it’s something generic) and you have no evidence to suggest that the registrant intended for you to own the name outright.
In these cases, the registrant may offer to sell the domain to you but usually at a hugely inflated price. If you’re not willing to purchase and there’s no reasonable legal recourse you can take (you might, for example, have a case against a former employee who registered a domain for your company whilst still in your employ) then your only other option is to chalk it up to experience and start again with a different domain – registered in your name.