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Cybersquatting: How to Protect Your Startup’s Domain Name

Michael S Melfi

Intellectual Property Attorney at Melfi Associates
Michael S. Melfi, J.D., MBA, is an attorney with Bodman PLC who represents emerging companies and established businesses in a wide array of technology and corporate matters. He has extensive experience mentoring, counseling and securing funding for entrepreneurs, inventors, startups and small businesses and their disruptive technologies. His passion is guiding and supporting emerging companies and entrepreneurs and has authored four books aimed to help entrepreneurs gain a better understanding of often seemingly complex areas. Michael is a partner at Bodman PLC, one of the Midwest’s leading business law firms, that provides counsel to some of the region’s most successful companies and individuals on a broad range of issues.

What is cybersquatting?

What happens when the domain you want is taken? When we say taken, we don’t mean that someone else secured the domain to launch their website, app or e-commerce business and are actively using the domain. We are talking about the cybersquatting screen of death, which basically means that someone else bought, registered, trafficked or otherwise is using a domain that is confusingly similar to a personal name or trademark.

Most of the time, this is done by a person or entity seeking to turn around and sell the acquired domain at a profit to the individual or business that originally owned the name or trademark.

If this has happened to you, it is worth it to monitor the site for a few months to see if anything further develops before taking action.

What rights do you have against this “thief”?

First, figure out who the person or entity is that has registered the domain. This can typically be found on a site like WHOIS. If the information is not private, you will be able to get contact information for the owner and you can communicate with them to purchase your domain.

The most important question is, do you have trademark protection to enforce? The best way to know this is to work with a trusted legal advisor to provide the insight to assist you with a cybersquatting situation. Ultimately, they will look at several things:

  • Is the domain name part of someone’s Intellectual Property?
  • Is the domain part of a well know brand, even if not trademarked?
  • What was the intent of the person purchasing the domain?

Bad faith domain squatting is illegal and these cases can be won, however they can be expensive to resolve.

If this happens, what are you to do?

If you have a case, you have two options. The first is to sue under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA). The ACPA creates a cause of action for any trademark holder to sue and the law was designed to thwart cybersquatters who register domains with no intention of creating a legitimate website, but rather plan to sell the domain to the trademark owner or a third party.

The second option is to pursue an action through the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which can be faster and less expensive than an ACPA lawsuit, as you do not need an attorney for filing purposes. ICANN acts as arbitration, not litigation under the Uniform Domain Name Dispute Resolution Policy (UDRP).

Alternatively, the least resource intensive way is to find another domain that you can utilize. If your brand recognition is not there yet, it is easy to change the name of your impending project or business. For more established brands, there are other extensions (i.e. .net, .tv, .org etc.), or the option to look at different spellings.

Ultimately, if you find yourself in a potential cybersquatting situation, it is important to consult with your trusted legal advisor to assist you in evaluating the situation in order to come up with a strategy to resolve the issue.

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