Frequently I encounter businesses seeking to protect a brand name. In discussing the actions taken to date taken, owners frequently state that they have registered the domain name corresponding to the desired brand name. Frequently, they believe that their name is “reserved” or protected because they have already successfully reserved the domain name. It is also often stated that because they were the first registrant of the domain name that they may do as they please with the domain name. Two common incorrect beliefs include that one is entitled to operate a website with the domain name or freely sell the domain name. This is often not the case. Just because one registers a domain first does not mean that the domain name can be lawfully used or sold. Not only does merely registering a domain name frequently confer only limited rights in the domain name or the underlying name, it is also possible that use of the registered domain name may lead to negative consequences.
The most known scenario is where one registers a domain name which is substantially a name in which another party has rights. If I (somehow) was the first registrant and operator of ibm.com, it would not be of much value. Ignoring the .com domain suffix, the relevant part of the domain name just contains the “IBM” trademark. Most people understand and agree that there could be trouble in this scenario, as IBM is a household name. However, most domain name registrants don’t realize that this scenario can occur with lesser known brand names as well. So being the first to register a lesser known domain name may place one in the same questionable situation.
A lesser known scenario is where one registers and uses a name which is similar to the name in which another party has rights. If I sought to register ibmsoftwaresolutions.com, my status as the first registrant of the domain name is again not very helpful in establishing rights in a “IBM software solutions” brand name nor in operating a similarly named website. Again this may not seem surprising using the IBM name as the context. However, as above, this scenario can occur with lesser known brand names as well.
There are times when registering a domain name may be helpful in establishing some level of rights, but being the first to register a domain name does not automatically lead to superior rights in the domain name or in the words contained in the domain name. Use of that domain name or attempted sale of the domain name can lead to loss of goodwill in the name, cease and desist letters, domain name arbitration, trademark actions, or anticybersquatting protection act claims, among possible consequences.