I think it’s safe to say that this year’s Republican primary season has been brutal. Some say billionaire businessman Donald Trump has bullied his way to the top of the polls by hurling insults and hyperbole at his fellow candidates, while others see him as a breath of fresh anti-establishment air bringing sweeping and welcomed change to the American political scene.
Regardless of your take, he’s introduced a new kind of populism defined in part by taking an aggressive approach to his political adversaries and bringing a swath of the American population along for the ride. His supporters, perhaps even fans, are unwaveringly staunch in their loyalty and eagerly seek opportunities to support their candidate.
One such opportunity recently presented itself when, according to news reports, a supporter who had acquired rights to the domain name JebBush.com redirected it to DonaldJTrump.com, the address of Trump’s official campaign website. Now, anyone who types JebBush.com into their browser search bars will not find the former Florida Governor’s website, but rather that of his arch rival in the Republican primary, Donald Trump. Oops … not good!
But this isn’t the first time this kind of blunder has happened in American politics and it won’t be the last (Carly Fiorina experienced a similar blunder on the day she launched her presidential campaign last year when an anti-Carly website highlighting her record at Hewlett-Packard was launched at CarlyFiorina.org, a domain name she apparently failed to purchase).
My initial reaction – Governor Bush, how can you be so stupid? After all, presidential candidates have tons of money and tons of talent on their campaign staffs, right? Perhaps, yes, but they don’t always pay attention to nuance and details about their online identities.
Note to self – do I pay close enough attention to my online identity? That’s a question we should all be asking ourselves.
3 Key Lessons for Businesses
Although we’re not running for president, we are running businesses, and there are key lessons we can learn from this public relations nightmare.
LESSON 1: Own Your Name as a Domain Name (and Every Version of It)
Although there are rules regarding use of domain names, there are very few rules on who can buy a domain name. Anyone at any time can log onto GoDaddy.com (or any other domain name registrar), search for a domain name, and snatch it right up if it’s available.
GoDaddy doesn’t screen purchasers to determine whether they have the legal right to the domain name (the actual words in the domain name, not the .com part). It’s just a simple transaction – if it’s available and you can pay for it, it’s yours.
Domain names are usually super cheap. Make sure you own every domain name you can with your personal name and your business name. You don’t have to promote all of them, you just have to make sure others don’t have the ability to pull a JebBush.com to DonaldJTrump.com redirect on you. This is a fundamental step of having a solid domain name strategy for your brand and business.
LESSON 2: Know (and Understand) Your Rights
One of the biggest myths about domain name ownership is the mistaken belief that ownership of a domain name means that you own the legal rights to the words in the domain name (here again, not the .com part). When you buy a domain name, you own just that – a domain name. It doesn’t mean anything more or anything less than.
It is quite possible that you may own some form of legal rights in the name itself (e.g. it’s your own name, it’s your business name, or it’s your trademark), but buying the domain name isn’t the source of those rights.
As of the time of this blog post, the domain StarbucksCoffeeIsAmazing.com is available for purchase. If I grabbed it and held onto it, I’ve done nothing wrong. However, if I launch a website that promotes my coffee products in a way that suggests that I’m affiliated with or sponsored by Starbucks in some way (but I’m not), then I’ve committed federal trademark infringement. Yikes! But, simply owning it is perfectly fine. Hey – what if I want to build a fan site one day? It could come in handy.
This can cut both ways for business owners. When we buy a domain name that is important to us, we must do something more to secure broader rights in the name itself, e.g. file a trademark application to be sure you own the branding rights in the name.
Simply holding the domain name – without anything more — serves but one purpose: it gives you exclusive control over the domain name itself, not the name itself. You can choose to hold onto it indefinitely, connect it to an active website, or even transfer it to someone else. But that’s where the rights end.
The same goes for those who have purchased domain names that we would like to have for ourselves, particularly ones we feel entitled to own, e.g. our own name, our business name, our trademark. Unless the owner acquired it with an intent to cyber squat (basically extort money out of you) or for some other bad act like duping customers into thinking their goods and services are affiliated with or somehow endorsed by you, then the purchaser hasn’t done anything wrong. Ouch!
Like you, they own only the domain name, not any particular legal right in the name itself, so there’s not much you can do but be frustrated that you didn’t buy it in the first place. I’m sure Jeb Bush and his team wish they’d paid closer attention!
LESSON 3: Enforce the Rights You Actually Have
There’s an age-old adage that goes like this: the law will not protect a fool from his own folly! Hence, if you believe your true legal rights have been violated, then you must do something about it. In the U.S. legal system, business owners have the responsibility to police and manage their legal rights. There is no branding police, or domain name police, or trademark police. You, the business owner, are your own police.
What does this mean for you? If you believe you’re being harmed by someone’s ownership – and use — of a domain name, then you have three choices:
- Contact the owner (check the WHOIS database for owner details) and try to resolve it amicably;
- If the domain name was purchased in bad faith and you can prove it, you can file a legal action under the Uniform Domain Name Resolution Policy (UDRP) asking for an order mandating the transfer of the domain name to you; and/or
- File a lawsuit for trademark infringement.
No one ever wants to get into legal disputes, but if it’s inevitable, I urge you to hire a really good lawyer to represent you. This is complicated stuff.
We live in interesting times. Small businesses are doing business in the same global economy as international conglomerates, something unimaginable just 20 years ago. We have access to extraordinary resources that in many ways help to democratize the playing field in bringing goods and services to market, but we also play in the same legal minefield. I wish there was a set of laws for “small business” and one for “big business,” but that’s one wish that hasn’t come true.
1. Be strategic! Make sure the domain names you’d like to represent you, your business, and your brand are available and then buy them up right away. Get as many as you can: .com, .net, .org, etc. You and Disney buy domain names from the same source and pay the same price – be as smart and savvy as the big guns.
2. Be vigilant! If a domain name you really want is owned by someone else, monitor it. If the registration expires, it is available to the next purchaser. Several online reports indicated that the original owner of JebBush.com allowed it to expire, but the Governer didn’t grab it. And we now know how the story ends.
3. Be smart! If you smell trouble, get good help. You can address domain name disasters from several angles – legal, marketing, and public relations. If you don’t have a lawyer, start with marketing. If you don’t have PR, start with your lawyer. Just start!