Mastering Your Own Domain
Small business owner David Solomon was hijacked online.
Or rather, his company's online address was claimed by someone else after he'd already moved in, leaving his business locked out of the Web home it had built for itself.
Solomon said his more than year-long experience was "horrific," causing him to stay up nights praying for a resolution to the situation, wringing his hands and fretting over finances.
For almost any business, creating and maintaining a brand identity is a fundamental priority. But staking out a claim on that identity online isn't as easy at clicking over to one of numerous Web site name retailers. Solomon's experience is a case study for what can go wrong if a business owner doesn't stay on top of the domain-name game.
Solomon started his firm in 1986 as a nonprofit providing information to motorists about car safety. He registered and successfully trademarked "Nutz and Boltz" in the early 1990s as the name of his operation, well before the Web reached its commercial heyday.
"Eventually, it made sense to do a Web site," he said. So the nonprofit, which operates under the name MotorWatch, acquired nutzandboltz.com and nutzandboltz.org.
Solomon's outfit paid a major player in Internet services to host the URLs and to register the domain names. That's when things started to go wrong.
It's a long, complicated story as Solomon tells it. But in a nutshell, MotorWatch's claim to one of the two URLs -- nutzandboltz.com -- was dropped, either by accident, miscommunication or both. As soon as it was released, a domain-name bandit grabbed it "and things just kept getting worse," said Solomon.
To register his URLs, Solomon had to work through a domain-name registrar, one of scores of companies that are licensed to sell Internet addresses to businesses and individuals around the world. Registrars are often huge operations that only interact with users through Web site forms, and in Solomon's effort to gain a firmer hand over nutzandboltz.com, the registrar in question released the domain before Solomon was aware of it.
Solomon said he hadn't realized that if he had filed a "back order" with the registrar, the company would have held it in a queue until Solomon could pick it up himself. According to Solomon, the registrar released the domain name at 35 days instead of the agreed-upon 45 days, taking him by surprise.
"It wasn't renewed in time and... spider bandits grabbed the site," he said, referring to automated digital "spiders" that crawl the Web looking for unrenewed domain names so that they can snap them up and post their own information on them.
Solomon looked up the hijackers on the primary domain-name database called WhoIs that lists contact information on domain-name registrants. WhoIs has long been criticized for containing erroneous and false information.
The database listed the cyber pirate's location as being based in the Cayman Islands. Solomon repeatedly tried to contact the outfit that bought the Web address, but got no response. He sent certified letters and eventually learned that the mail system in the islands doesn't accept them.
He researched the domain-name issue and heard of a group known by its acronym -- ICANN, short for the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers. It's the body that oversees the Internet's domain naming system. For example, it was ICANN that approved the domain-name suffixes ".com," ".org" and ".mobi." Solomon contacted ICANN for help, but it was in the midst of a restructuring and pointed him to a global standards setting-body, the World Intellectual Property Organization, based in Geneva.
He made an attempt to complete the required forms for the Swiss group, but finally decided it was "so complex and beyond my scope" that he hired a lawyer.
He turned to Venable, a law firm that has the majority of its offices in the D.C. metro area. A lawyer there had helped Solomon trademark the Nutz and Boltz name and aided him years earlier when he felt a print publication not related to his firm was infringing on the name.
Legal fees at Venable costs hundreds of dollars per hour, but the firm agreed to take the case at a fraction of its usual cost. The firm declined to comment on the arrangement. Solomon estimates his total cost would have been about $8,000 to the lawyers, but he owes them $1,000. He paid the $1,500 it costs to file with WIPO.
Some of the $2,500 in fees he's accrued has been whittled down by contributions from members and fundraisers he's held. MotorWatch garners its revenue through dues from its several thousand members at $11.95 per year. There are about 70 part-time volunteers around the country that also work for MotorWatch.
Solomon's story shows that securing a Web address for your company is something that a business owner must take seriously -- paying particularly close attention to the fine print generated by the registrar that sells a domain name.
Janet Satterthwaite, who heads the domain-name practice at Venable, offered these tips for small businesses when it comes to registering domain names:
* Be vigilant about renewal due dates
* Make sure that the head of the company registers the domain name and not an employee or Internet service provider. "We've seen a lot of cases where some guy registers a domain name with an e-mail account and then he leaves the company," she said. "It's costly to fix that."
* Have multiple e-mail addresses and one central one where certain information like domain renewal notifications will go. "This way more than one person will see the renewal, especially if the initial contact person is not with the company any more."
* Choose your registrar carefully. While discount registrars that cost $7 a year may look good, "when you have a problem you'll have a hard time finding someone on the other end of that phone." Satterthwaite says "you get what you pay for" with domain-name registration.
* Be careful who has a firm's password and log-in information with a domain-name registrar because you never know if that employee will leave the company
The global body ruled this month in favor of Nutz and Boltz. The disputed domain name Nutzandboltz.com will be returned to Solomon, who now is a volunteer with MotorWatch and holds the title of chairman. The site currently is still held by the bandits.
Solomon recommends that small firms register their domain names for as long as five years at a time. He now works with Intercosmos Media Group of New Orleans to host his sites.
"Sign up with a firm that you feel comfortable with and that allows you to keep track of your Web site accounts so you don't fall into a trap of bandits," said Solomon. "I had a trademark and thought I was covered, but pirates used my Web site for a year and then some, even though it was illegal."
"If you don't pay attention, it could cost you dearly," he said.
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