Coming to America (1988)
“Look... me and the McDonald's people got this little misunderstanding. See, they're McDonald's... I'm McDowell's. They got the Golden Arches, mine is the Golden Arcs. They got the Big Mac, I got the Big Mick. We both got two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions, but their buns have sesame seeds. My buns have no seeds.”
Most businesses, at some point or the other, hope to establish a unique brand with the aim of distinguishing themselves from others within their respective industries. Businesses spend countless resources to establish a brand and once they do, they should protect it at all costs. While only a parody, the scene from Coming to America quoted above illustrates the issue well: What if you managed to come up with something that catches on in the market place and becomes entrenched in your ability to generate business. What would you do to protect it? McDonald’s would likely go after McDowell’s to prevent him from creating confusion and diluting its brand.
The point of this article is to discuss how domain names, which should be thought of as your “brand” can be protected using trademark laws. There is little doubt that most businesses view online presence as essential. A website, is generally the portal through which the business makes its presence known. Whether it is marketing with the intention of providing business owners opportunities to expand their services or whether it is actually providing the service using the website itself – website are here to stay and are poised to become increasingly more essential to businesses.
To make the website more readily identifiable to their customer-base, business owners frequently use their business name as the domain name. A common assumption is that registering a domain name is enough to safeguard the name from being used by others. Simply put, signing up with a registrar and paying a small annual fee only gives the business a license to use the domain name for a certain period of time. Additionally, this right could be revoked at any time. So most domain names are not owned by the business, they are simply on lease. Imagine spending a significant amount of time and resources into building your website and driving traffic to it, only to have to start all over again because someone owns the trademark that is your domain name.
Registering or licensing a domain name will not protect business owners from others who actually trademark the same name or a similar domain name. This could lead to customer confusion, particularly where others with a similar domain name are also selling similar products. Online businesses are especially vulnerable to infringement, because the website is its sole identity. In most cases, trademarking the domain name is an important step towards protecting a business’ online identity and will provide business owners with legal recourse in the case of infringement. Trademarking a domain name essentially declares that the business owner has legal rights to that name.
A business owner who registers a trademark has an exclusive legal right to use the mark in commerce. For example, a business owner who trademarks a domain name will have the exclusive right to use that domain name in relation to its goods and services. Trademarking a domain name is subject to the same rules and standards as trademarking a business name or logo.
While choosing a domain name may be simple, not every word is protected by trademark law. A business owner who wants to trademark a domain name will have to consider a few factors. The name must identify products or services in that business, and it must be distinctive. For example, using common words such as coffee.com or juiceshop.com are most likely ineligible for trademark protection. The more unique the name is, the more likely it will qualify as a trademark. A diligent search should be performed to avoid the potential of any future legal liability as well as to ensure that an application for trademarking the domain name is not rejected.
This article was prepared with the help of Julie Lee, J.D. candidate (2017), CUNY School of Law.