Who owns your business website?


Do you own your business’s website? Unless you set it up yourself, don’t be so sure.

“It’s not something your average small business owner thinks about,” according to Rollie Hawk, owner of Union County Technology Solutions.  “They typically go to someone and get a website designed and a domain name registered.  After that, they just pay a bill, not really thinking about what happens behind the scenes.”

There are parallels between ownership of a website and of real estate.

For instance, suppose you lease office space.  You pay rent for your office.  Your landlord makes a mortgage payment to a bank.  Someone pays property taxes to the county.  So who—from a legal standpoint—owns your office: you, the landlord, the county or the bank?

“When you think about a website as though it were real estate, the question of ownership makes more sense.  There are different levels of ownership and it’s important to know whose name is on the note, so to speak,” explains Hawk.  “Maybe you just hand someone a monthly check to run your website.  Some of that money goes to registration fees, some to hosting fees and so on.  But since you don’t necessarily see all of that, you may not know whose name everything is filed under.”

When an Internet domain—such as a .com or a .org—is registered, there are a number of contacts that are included.  Typically, these include a registrant, a billing contact and a technical contact.

“It’s not unusual for a web designer to set up a website for a business and to have everything under his or her own name and contact information.  This is dangerous for businesses that rely heavily on their website and email.  If there’s a sudden illness or a falling-out with that web designer, what happens to your website?”

One of the greatest dangers is a lapse in your website’s domain registration.  Once a renewal fee is left unpaid, that domain goes back on the market and is almost always immediately bought by a third party.

“Companies specialize in buying up domains that have a lapse in renewal.  They do this because they know people will pay top dollar to get their website and email back.  I can’t overemphasize how important it is that businesses stay on top of this.”

Fortunately, checking the ownership status of a website isn’t terribly complicated.

“One of the best websites I’ve seen for looking up registrations is whois.sc.  You tell it your domain name and it gives you all the basic information.  Look carefully at each of the contacts listed.  If your name and contact information aren’t on there, that’s a huge red flag.”

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