Cybersquatting is buying up website addresses, or domain names, that sound very similar to existing well known brand names.
When Google recently launched its new parent company Alphabet, and the abc.xyz web address, there were more than 20,000 registrations by people attempting to take advantage, registering names like googlefiber.xyz or googledocs.xyz.
And in January, eBay won one of the largest cybersquatting cases, winning the ownership of more than 1,000 domains that had used its trademark.
Protecting your brand name online is of critical business importance for smaller companies as well.
The potential for cybersquatting has grown since the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – the international body responsible for co-ordinating all these addresses – began issuing hundreds of new generic top level domains (gTLDs), such as .xyz, and .nyc, as well as controversial ones like .sucks and .porn.
When ICANN proposed allowing these new generic top level domains, the trademark world was not receptive to that idea because they were so concerned about cybersquatting and poaching. Those concerns would appear to have been justified.
People were “just overwhelmed” by the number of gTLDs becoming available.
In the distant history you had .biz or .info and things like this coming online in a small round of five or six new gTLDs. Now the burden of protecting your brand online is potentially much higher as more extensions become available.
So how do you protect your brand online?
Registering it as a trademark is a good first step as it gives you more rights over related web addresses.
Under ICANN’s Trademark Clearinghouse (TMCH) rules, a domain registry must provide a “sunrise period,” during which trademarked brands registered in the TMCH can buy domains before they are publicly available.
Simply buying up lots of addresses that are variations of your brand name is one option. But this can get expensive for a small business, as domains can vary in price from 99p to several thousand pounds.
GoDaddy, a web hosting company, says: “Really, nobody has to go out and buy hundreds of domain names across their brands and keywords to protect themselves. Be thoughtful about the handful of names that are most important to you and think about registering those – ones that if you saw in the hands of your closest competitor, you wouldn’t be happy about it.”
If you think a cybersquatter has bought a domain name that infringes your trademark, you can go through ICANN’s uniform domain name dispute resolution (UDRP) system to have your case heard by a panel of experts.
“The UDRP keeps people out of court,” says the WIPO. “If you’re sitting in the United States and there’s somebody in Vietnam that’s squatting on your brand, you don’t have to go a local court.”
Another option is the uniform rapid suspension (URS) system, which is a “lighter version.”
At the end of the UDRP process, I get the domain back in my portfolio and keep it out of the hands of other infringers. Under the URS though, it just gets suspended or taken down for the duration of the registration period.
The brand owner then has the choice of trying to obtain the domain in the future or waiting to see if anyone takes it again.
The cybersquatting issue is likely to keep lawyers and dispute resolution panels busy for years to come.