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Who Registered and Owns your Domain Name?

Most businesses have a website, either for e-commerce or simply engaging prospective customers. But who actually owns the website and domain name?

It is important for startups to sort out  who is registering the domain name and who has ownership of it. Only as recently as 2011 did the Ontario Courts confirm that domain names are property in the eyes of the law (Tucows v. Renner). As property, domain names can be owned by any legal entity.

An interesting issue arises under most hosting provider’s terms of use as to who owns or who can claim ownership of the domain name.

In many startups, the domain name is registered in the personal name of one of the co-founders. This can cause a number of problems, particularly where there is a co-founders’ dispute and the registrant of the name leaves the business.

Take the recent Ontario dispute in Mold.ca Inc. v. Moldservices.ca argued by my friend John Simpson. In that case, two co-founders ran a mold inspection and removal business, with Cofounder 1 being responsible for start-up costs and managing the business and Co-founder 2 being responsible for operations, including the registration of the website. Co-founder 2 purchased a number of domain names for the business, using the company credit card, but putting his own name down as the registrant.

When Co-founder 2 left the business about a year later, he took the registrations and passwords with him. Unfortunately for Co-founder 1, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) dispute resolution proceedings to have the domain names transferred to the company were unsuccessful on the grounds there was no evidence the domain names had been registered in bad faith by co-founder 2, or that they were being used illegitimately.

While the domains were ultimately recovered in the Court proceedings, the lesson learnt is to ensure the operating company owns the domains and website, and not an individual associated with the business, who one day may part ways. To ensure the business owns the domains names, have the business listed as the registered owner though your hosting provider and if necessary enter an agreement in which the domain name is assigned to the business.

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John Wires is the founder of Wires Law, a law firm serving corporate, technology and e-commerce clients across Canada. John comes from a corporate litigation background. He has appeared in the Ontario Superior Court, the Ontario Court of Appeal and private arbitrations. He graduated from law school with first class honours specializing in both international trade and corporate commercial law.