If you're thinking of taking your small business online, a very important part of the process is getting a domain name for your business's Web site. Why? Because it's the way that your customers are going to find you on the Internet, and so it's a huge part of your ability to expand sales. In short, it's directly related to how successful your online business will be.
There's more to a choosing and using a domain name than coming up with a catchy, snappy name or phrase:
- There are classifications for certain types of Web sites
- The domain name has to be available, that is, no else is using it
- You need to register it, and
- You might want to trademark it
Of course, coming up with a name is something you certainly can do yourself, but the other steps can be tricky. So, be certain to research the issues thoroughly, or get some help from an experienced business law attorney.
What Exactly Is a Domain Name?
The domain name is the generally the way Web sites are accessed. Typically, web site addresses are comprised of two major components: the string "http://www.," which is followed by the domain name. For example, Lawyers.com is a domain name, and its Web site address is http://www.Lawyers.com. The domain name is also the most common way of referring to Web sites. For example, "I found the legal help I needed on Lawyers.com."
There are several categories for Web sites; the category is what follows the "dot." The most common are ".com," ".org," and ".net." The categories are supposed to reflect a Web site's primary purpose, that is, tell visitors what to expect on the site.
The .com tag usually refers to companies, either preexisting businesses that have created a site to accompany their enterprises or those businesses that were started and function solely on the Internet. The .net refers to a site hosted by a network and usually refers to a personal or individually-sponsored Web site. The use of .org is reserved for non-profit organizations.
Two other common website tags are ".edu" and ".gov." Web sites that end in .edu are those of educational institutions, while .gov is used by the federal government. Web sites outside of the United States may also make use of geographic tags, such as ".uk" for sites based in Great Britain and ".fr" for those in France.
Generally, a business will use its business name as part of its domain name. However, you can use the name of your product, or really anything you want, subject to considerations, one practical and one legal:
- You want customers to find you easily and you want them to remember your Web site, and
- The domain name can't be being used by another Web site, and it can't "infringe" or violate a trademark owned by someone else
Is the Domain Available?
It is critical that you don't choose and use a domain name that's already being used by another Web site. First, do some searches on the Net and see if anyone's using the name you want to use. Given the overwhelming size and continued growth of the Net, many of the more obvious names are taken. Finding a name that is available yet still reflective of your Web site can require some creativity.
It is also essential that you make sure that the domain name you want does not infringe on a trademark owned by another person or company. Trademarks protect distinctive words, symbols, and logos, such as the name of a product and the logo or symbol owned by a business.
The reason for avoiding the use of a trademarked name is that the owner of the trademark, whether an individual or company, may object to the use of the name. If the owner can convince a court that the use confuses potential consumers, that is, makes them think that the Web site in question is affiliated with the trademark owner, or dilutes the trademark, that is, decreases the association between the word or phrase and the trademark owner, you will be barred from using the name and you might be liable for damages.
Registering a Domain Name
Once you've determined that the domain name you want is available and not trademarked by someone else, it must be registered. There are dozens of companies that can help you complete the process and the fees are low. Domain names can be registered to only one person or company, and registering a domain name is on a "first come first served" basis. Where several persons or companies have equally legitimate claims on a word or phrase, the one that registers the domain name first will be able to use it.
For the same reasons that you need to check trademark registrations, it's probably a good idea for you to register your domain name as a trademark: it prevents others from using your name and stealing your business. Again, a trademark law attorney can help you protect your interest here.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can I sell a domain name that I'm not using?
- Can I let another business use my domain name, say, if we agree to share profits?
- Someone else is using the name of my company in their Web site. Is there anything I can do?
- How long does a domain name registration last?
- How much will it cost to register my domain name as a trademark, and how long will the trademark last?